For the past two weeks, one of the top news stories across the country has been the nomination of Sen. Chuck Hagel to become Secretary of Defense. The fight in Congress has been one of the top stories on the national news day after day. So I was saddened to read the latest Pew research showing that 50% of Americans polled have no opinion of the guy.
Meanwhile, President Obama gave his State of the Union address, which was televised on all of the major networks and all of the cable news channels. Unfortunately for the president’s agenda, at the same time, law enforcement in California was taking down a former cop turned killer. That same Pew Research showed that more Americans were following the police manhunt closely than were following the State of the Union closely. And why not? Even though the president’s speech had more impact on their lives, the manhunt and killing of the cop was dramatic.
Americans’ general lack of interest in government news isn’t new. (You oughta see the numbers on their interest in international news.) The first speech I gave as editor of the News & Record 14 years ago was on this topic. Given the continued decline in the traditional mass media, I worry about the ignorance of the populace when it comes to current civic affairs. Add to that the paywalls that are going up faster than strip malls along a new highway, and you might conclude that we’re headed for a spot of trouble.
I keep thinking about the college student’s now famous comment: “If the news is important, it will find me.” And it doesn’t just apply to college students. Last September, Pew reported that less than 20% of those younger than 50 rely on print newspapers for their news. Television is in better shape, pulling in about half the population, which is roughly the same for online.
Yet, half the people don’t know enough about Chuck Hagel to have an opinion. And only one-in-four followed the State of the Union closely.
There are lessons for the news media.
* Understand your challenge. Covering civic affairs the way you’ve always covered them isn’t working. You must make how government works meaningful to people who have many other things going on in their lives. What do you think gets more attention, the legislation allowing a possum drop or the blocking of the Medicaid extension? A bill to classify women’s nipples as indecent or one to block unemployment benefits? We all know which are important, but which do you think gets read? One is simple to understand; one is complex. One is sexy; one feels like homework. Yes, civics often feels like homework; your job is to make it sexy.
* Consider innovative ways to reach people. Remember: If the news is important, it will find me. Here is one: “Once we’ve whitelisted a news organization’s Twitter account, appending @breakingnews or #breakingnews anywhere in a tweet will pop it in front of our editors on this page. If it’s a breaking story with national or regional interest — and it’s the first we’ve seen of it — we’ll publish it on the BreakingNews.com home page, our three mobile apps and potentially on Twitter and Facebook, too. The bigger the story, the more places it goes.” More than 300 news accounts have signed up.
* Reconsider exactly how you express who you are. Here is one: “Stop trying to advertise on mobile, and instead participate in the streams that people want to use on mobile, and people will follow your brands if you contribute to whatever it is the people are up to.”
* Create a different measure of success. Here is one: “If journalists started with outcomes, they’d measure their success not by unique users or page views or other such “audience” metrics adapted from mass media. They’d measure their success by how informed the public becomes: Did the public find out what it wants or needs to know because of what we’ve done? Is the electorate better informed?” (Hat tip to @TerryHeaton for the pointer.)
There are others, I’m sure. I’m just starting to think about this deeply. Help contribute.