The news business is a funny business

Opinion March 12, 2014 0 Comments

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by Pete Mazzaccaro

Being in the news business can be really strange. It’s a business that seeks profit through sales and advertising. Success comes at striking for mass appeal or at least popular appeal. The more units you sell the more advertising you can sell and the more money you make.

Yet many of the things that work to attract large audiences for news outlets – TV, radio, print and Web, it’s pretty much the same – are frowned upon. Some of the most successful content often earns the label of sensational or prurient, two favorite critical adjectives to describe works of journalism that are “not in good taste.”

Recent studies have found that the public’s views on “mass media” have never been much worse. A Gallup poll conducted last September found that attitudes on the media had recovered slightly from an all-time low in early 2013, when 60 percent of respondents said they trusted the media “not much/not at all.” That improved to 55 percent when the survey was taken.

Gallup’s pollsters posited that political leanings and perceived liberal bias was perhaps the most influencing factor for the low level of trust. The largest declines in trust were among poll participants who identified themselves as independent or Republican.

Gallup’s data bears out that hypothesis – that liberal bias is a significant factor in the decline of public opinion towards the media – but it’s hard for me to believe that’s the only thing at work. While the media certainly is responsible in part for public perception, I don’t think it’s fair to leave out the public, which exhibits a behavior that drives up the value of casual and celebrity news while other stories that report on important matters are left behind.

The Local currently has an example of the weird way public appetites can fuel news choices. The most popular item we’ve run online this month is a column by Jill Boyd describing how much she hated attending a Dave Matthews Band concert. That article was shared by one reader of the popular Web platform Reddit and has since seen skyrocketing page views on Chestnut Hill Local online.

And while stories about police reports on neighborhood crime and the expansion of Chestnut Hill’s Business Improvement District have been lucky to receive a few hundred reads and a comment or two. Boyd’s Dave Matthew’s critique has garnered thousands of views and eight rather lengthy comments, most of which are clearly the work of devoted Dave Matthews Band fans, outraged to learn that the general public doesn’t care that much about their favorite mopey singer songwriter.

Down the line of “what’s been popular on chestnuthilllocal.com recently,” we find other fairly light items: a list of things you didn’t know about Chestnut Hill and a couple photos of M. Night Shyamalan shooting a small budget movie at the Highland Train station. When it comes to news that gets views, the public seems a lot happier to digest pretty inconsequential stuff.

The cycle is a vicious one for the news. As media outlets scramble to find stable sources of revenue, convincing advertisers that their products are “worth it,” the news attracting the most views continues to be the very same stuff that very same consuming public deems trite and trashy. It’s a no-win situation as long as the outlets we want to invest in solid news are consistently rewarded for producing the opposite.

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