Your chances of avoiding stories on the lottery are 1-in-175 million

Wednesday update: Jim Romenesko asks me a question.

Tuesday update: The Today Show comes through!

Assignment editors are sighing in relief. Just after the election — after a brief look at the fiscal cliff with all of its snore-inducing details — we got a series of reports on Thanksgiving, black Friday, local Saturday and cyber Monday (I refuse to capitalize them as if they are ….something). But what’s the next big cliched story we can cover?

A record $425 million jackpot in the Powerball lottery! Because we have more reporters than we know what to do with, let’s see now, we can assign reporters to:

* Interview people lining up to buy tickets.

* Review exactly what 1-in-175 million chance of winning actually means. (You don’t have a prayer.)

* Show graphically now many times 425,000,000 one dollar bills would stretch around the world.

* Remind readers/viewers of past winners and the good/bad luck they’ve had since winning.

* Interview that guy who gives what he calls tips on how to win the lottery.

Stop me if you’ve heard/read these stories before. Maybe even a few days ago when it was at $350 million or something.

Oh, wait. It has already started. We can only hope that someone wins it on Wednesday or we’ll get a new flock of stories. (I hope it’s me.)

To hell with the trust gap; worry about the uninterest gap

I greeted this Gallup poll about the continued decline in trust in the news media with “meh.” Trust has been trending down for a while, and the clamor about media trust has been so loud for so long that it is hard to get excited about it. That feeling is clearly tempered by my experience as a newspaper editor. For years, I joined in the hand-wringing, trying a variety of things to stanch the bleedout. We included more “community news.” We solicited reader-generated content. We added folksy columnists. We engaged with people, using blogs, story comments and social media. We focused on being fair. We refined the voice of the paper.

While I believe they all improved the content of the paper, I have no sense that any of those efforts created more trust among readers. Trust, at least in this community, is hard to regain once it’s lost.

Forget the trust gap; focus on the disinterest gap.

The news media needs more focus on reporting stories that are just plain interesting and relevant. You might think that this would be a given for any news organization, but it’s clearly not. That sounds harsh, I know, but readers wouldn’t be turning away from newspapers so steadily if the stories were closer to being indispensable than indistinguishable. (And I say newspapers, but I include in that description all of the products that newspapers produce, including digital.) Imagine if every reader found at least one item in which he said “Wow! Listen to this.” or “Hey, did you read about the ….” Instead, it is too easy to scan the front pages of the papers and find little to read that is new or vital.

If I ran a news organization, I would post the details this report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project on every newsroom desk. I’m not sure if Greensboro, for instance, is considered urban or suburban so I include capsules of both.

“Urban residents: People who live in large cities rely on a wider combination of platforms for information than others and are more likely to get local news and information via a range of digital activities, including internet searches, Twitter, blogs and the websites of local TV stations and newspapers. Urbanites were also those least tied to their communities in terms of how long they lived in the community and how many people they know. They were the least interested of all groups in information about local taxes. At the same time, those who live in large cities, along with suburban residents, are the most likely to be digital “news participators” who email local stories to others, post material on social networking sites, comment on news stories online, or contribute to online discussions on message boards.  Also along with suburbanites, they are more likely to get news via mobile devices. Additionally, they are the most likely to rely on local TV news for information about breaking news, weather, crime, politics, and traffic.

“Suburban residents: Those who live in suburban communities are more likely than others to rely on local radio as a platform (perhaps because of relatively longer commuting times); they are more interested than others in news and information about arts and cultural events; and they are particularly interested in local restaurants, traffic, and taxes. Like urbanites, they are heavy digital participators who comment and share the news. These suburban residents rely mainly on the internet for information about local restaurants, businesses, and jobs. They look to television news for weather and breaking news.”

What among these topics of interest can I create an interested community around? How can I make the content they are interested in interesting? How can I deliver it in the ways they want it vs. the way I have it?

None of this is particularly new, which is partly why I reacted to the trust survey with shrugged shoulders. I wouldn’t give up on trust, but I wouldn’t stress over it. My stress would be, with smaller staffs than ever, how am I going to regain the interest of readers?

What to do at UNC…

Another day, another story about the scandals that have engulfed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for going on three years. How is it possible this hasn’t been cleaned up yet?

It’s gotten to be more than embarrassing. It’s shameful. Shameful that it happened. Shameful that it continues. It started with the athletic department, spread to academics and has moved into fund-raising. It’s as if the school began investigating some rotten timber in the den and has discovered roaches in the kitchen and bats in the attic. What infestation will they find next?

It’s past time for transparency, but doesn’t UNC seem to continue to be opaque? From today’s story in the News & Observer about the resignation of Matt Kupec and his relationship with Tami Hansbrough, mother of Tyler Hansbrough. The News & Observer sought to obtain a copy of the dental foundation audit and related expense records four weeks ago, but the foundation’s new director, Paul Gardner, said they were not public record because the foundation is a nonprofit and not a public agency. He forwarded The N&O’s request to UNC-CH’s legal department, which so far has not provided information.

Here’s my unsolicited advice to the top brass at the university and the university system: Once the News & Observer gets onto a story, the paper isn’t going to let go. (I would think it is something UNC leadership has learned by now.) That tenacity means several things, and it certainly means this: You can’t control the story, the release of the information or how it is going to look. Stop trying. When the reporter calls, it’s likely he or she already knows what you wish you could handle quietly. Quiet will no longer work on this story.
I don’t know how this will end — not well, I suspect — but, for the sake of the university, the wisest course is to be as open as possible — more open than the university seems to be.
Update: On Facebook, Philip Meyer passed on some PR strategy 101: “Trapped administrators need to follow a counter-intuitive strategy: get the bad news out, get it all out, and get it out fast. Letting it dribble out a little at a time just makes the damage worse. Machiavelli advised that, and so did my former colleague Clarence Jones.”
Wednesday update: And the bad news continues to dribble out.

Support for the N&O’s Dan Kane: Keep at it

I have admired Dan Kane’s work in the N&O on the UNC athletic-now-academic scandal for a while. It has shown the N&O’s typical aggressiveness, tenacity and fearlessness. Not surprisingly, others aren’t so kind. Or, rather, Julius Peppers’ agent, Carl Carey Jr., isn’t.

Steve Riley, Dan’s editor at the N&O, explains the background. Basically, it has to do with linking a negative site to Dan’s name when someone does a Google search. Classy. On the other hand, most journalists don’t mind being trashed by a news subject; it often means their reporting has hit home.

Steve: I’m Dan’s editor, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen a more dogged and determined reporter. But I’ve also not seen one any more dedicated to being fair and placing things in their proper context. He will keep reporting this story, regardless of the web site assembled in his honor.

News stories that aren’t news

Thursday update: My home newspaper published a gas prices story on its front page this morning, just to spite me. (Just kidding, my friends at the paper.)

Wednesday morning: You know those “news” stories that don’t tell you anything new? These are the reports whose primary purpose is to fill television airtime and newspaper space. Reporters don’t like them. I doubt the assigning editors even like them. They put their best faces on to report them, but you get the sense that they are going through the motions as Bill Murray did in the early scenes of Groundhog Day.

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Still, they come.

* Gas prices are going up! Most people drive and they know that gas prices are going up. A friend of mine on Facebook asked last week why we hadn’t seen any stories on rising gas prices. She was indignant that prices were so high and that the media hadn’t covered it. I responded that the time and space was being filled with the Olympics and that once they were over, this non-news would come rushing in. It has. Do you know anything now that you didn’t know before?

* The lottery jackpot is above $300 million! Let’s interview people standing in line to buy tickets! “What will you do with the money if you win?” If I win, I’m going to buy a TV station and fire the first person who has no more imagination than to suggest such a story.

* It’s hot! Let’s go out and try to see if an egg will fry on the sidewalk! As a colleague of mine used to say, “It’s August in the South. It’s supposed to be hot.” I’m not talking about the weather reports that morning television broadcast every few minutes until you can recite it yourself. I’m talking the feature stories on how it’s 95 degrees and, you know, it’s hot.

Monthly unemployment numbers are up! Last month, they were down! What’s happening to our economy? Do we really think economists know what an increase of a tenth of a percentage point means? (I can assure you the politicians don’t.) How about writing about unemployment numbers every six months and tell us trends…if there’s a story there. If not, ignore it and spend your time reporting on who’s hiring.

* Holiday shopping and holiday travel stories. It’s just August but I can already tell you with 100 percent certainty that it’s going to busy at the mall on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I can also tell you that airports and highways are going to be jammed on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Done and done. Now, go and report on something that everyone doesn’t know.

* Giving the microphone to politicians who aren’t running for any office so that they can say precisely what they are expected to say. Newt Gingrich, who trashed Mitt Romney for months earlier this year, was on the Today Show yesterday morning extolling the virtues of the presumptive GOP nominee. He promoted Romney and trashed Obama. It was simply filler, enlightening no one. This isn’t intended as a knock on the political parties; this is what they do. It’s a criticism of predictable he-said, she-said reporting.

* The top 10 list! Best colleges! Best state for business! Most obese states! You name it, there’s a list for it. Interesting stuff, too. So, it’s not the list itself. Some of them are interesting and worth reporting. (Yes, I know this is a list, but wait! Read on!) But when I have to click through 10 different webpages? Forget it. Just admit that you want me to click on your site 10 times, you traffic whore.

Please note, I’m not talking about stories in which there is actual news: People dying from the heat, and the single mother trying to hold things together who wins the lottery. I’m talking about the stories in which nothing, really, happens. When you see these, you know the team needs a 5-hour Energy shot. Holding a thermometer inside a hot car isn’t why they got into journalism. They decided to sign up for long hours and low pay to tell people things they don’t know and, perhaps, enrich their lives.

Next time you see such a story, call the station or paper and demand they up their game. As reporting staffs get smaller, their time is better spent reporting what their public officials are doing. The community impact is far greater.

Aurora and Goliad

I was asked a question this morning: “I know why the story out of Aurora was wall-to-wall news on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was — still is — horrifying. But why is this story out of Goliad, Texas, worth hardly a mention?”

The story — all of three paragraphs in the paper — starts this way: “Fourteen illegal immigrants were killed Sunday outside this rural South Texas town after the pickup truck they were riding in veered off a highway and struck two trees, authorities said.”

I didn’t answer the question very well. I mentioned that Aurora was planned and purposeful where Goliad was, presumably, accidental. I said something about people everywhere being able to identify with the Aurora killings because they can see themselves in a movie theater. Can they see themselves in the back of a pickup with 22 other people? Probably not.

But I don’t think I got it exactly right. Twelve dead; 14 dead. All of the victims doing nothing that should have gotten them killed. One predominantly white people, one illegal immigrants. One a Denver suburb, one a town in the middle of nowhere. One guns, one an overloaded pickup.

All innocent human beings.

Give me a better response to the question.

Ann Romney in town: Is it news?

If the wife of a presidential candidate comes to town for a private fund-raiser, gives a three-and-a-half-minute public speech to the party faithful and says nothing of substance, is it news?

I suppose so, given who Ann Romney is married to. But I hope it isn’t big news in the morning paper. There is a line between telling people that someone in the news was in town and being manipulated for a political purpose. And I’ve already written about that this week.

Travis Fain has more.

Friday update: How the News & Record played the story. Looks right, to me.



Where the reporters have gone

When I left the News & Record last December, we had fewer reporters than anytime since at least the 1970s. Maybe earlier than that.

Madison Taylor, editor of the Times-News in Burlington, accurately describes what has happened to reporters in his post, “Where have the reporters gone.”

You could see it Tuesday at the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office when a press conference scheduled a day in advance to discuss new evidence in a cold case drew one print reporter — us. Only one TV station sent one of its reporters. The rest simply sent videographers who would supply B-roll for a quick voiceover taken from a press release. Not very long ago the Times-News would’ve been joined at such a press conference by the Greensboro News and Record the Durham Herald and possibly the Raleigh News and Observer. And every TV station would have a camera crew and a reporter. Might’ve even done a live satellite feed on site in Graham.

I, too, mourn the loss of reporters covering a community. Still, these days, the value of reporters from Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh covering a news conference in Burlington is dubious. As a Greensboro resident and News & Record reader, I don’t feel any loss not reading about that new evidence in my paper.

But I understand his point. The more reporters covering a community, the better. Yet, I must sadly note that, despite the decline in reporting strength, the collective news media has enough reporters to staff the Edwards trial as the jury deliberates. I don’t know how many reporters and photojournalists are twiddling their thumbs waiting. I am sure, though, that many of their readers and viewers would just as soon see their talents used in some other enterprising way.

(Photo credit: Charlotte Huffman, NBC-17)


How can newspapers cover elections to serve readers better?

On Saturday, I referred to a survey that I thought would send chills down the spines of journalists, but really shouldn’t. Today, the Elon University Poll reports one that should send chills down the spines of newspaper journalists, but probably won’t. (Full disclosure: I’m the director of communications for the poll.)

The poll reports that North Carolinians, when asked where they get most of their news about the May 8 primary, responded 42% television, 24% the Internet, 11% newspapers, 10% radio and 7% talking to people.

I single out newspapers because they devote a great deal of energy covering the elections, more than the other news sources. Oh, you can see a great deal of presidential coverage on television and the Internet, and that’s great. It covers one of the dozen or so issues on the ballot. But governor? Lieutenant governor? Congress? School board? Board of County Commissioners? State Senate? If you’re going to be informed about those, it’s likely going to be from information published in the local newspaper.

And about as many people get election information from the radio as from newspapers? OK, I implore television to devote more attention to the local elections than to crime and inconsequential stories that they air because they have video. But they won’t. So, let’s move on.

It may be time for newspaper editors to question some of their traditional principles.

* If only one in 10 people rely on the newspaper for election information, should editors devote their efforts to covering other issues more important to their readers?

* If the primary purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” is there another way newspapers can cover elections that is more helpful to their readers?

* This is counter-intuitive to those who still consider television news competitiion — here’s a secret: TV has won — but is there an opportunity to partner with television to take the information that citizens need (elections) where they are gathering (television)?

* 24% of respondents cited the Internet as their No. 1 source. Presumably that includes some newspaper websites. Presumably the percentage will climb in the future. Doesn’t this suggest that newspapers should provide citizens with deep, detailed election information online?

There are ways to discount the poll response. People were only talking about the presidential race. If asked about the other races, they’d say newspaper. When people were thinking of Internet sites, they were really thinking of newspaper internet sites. These are probably true of some of the respondents.

One thing’s for sure: Changing nothing is the wrong response.

When news is not news

The statistic’s even starker for certain age groups: 31 percent of people ages 18-24 get no news on an average day, and 22 percent of 30-34-year-olds get none either.

Nearly one in three people 18-24 years old get no news? That’s a factoid that sends shivers down not only the spines of journalists but also anyone who cares about civic life.

That quote in italics is from Poynter’s report on a slideshow prepared by Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. (It isn’t on the Pew site, and it’s dangerous to draw conclusions from slide from a survey with no attached methodology, but here we go.)

My first thought was that it is just deserts for a news media that identifies the top story of the morning a woman who doesn’t have monkeypox, as the news channels did yesterday. (Hey, I don’t have monkeypox either! Put me on TV!) Or the second big story of the day, a missing child in Tucson. Neither story makes a difference in the lives of more than a few hundred people. These are the empty calories that the national networks call news. A man catches a baseball at a game and doesn’t give it to the crying three-year-old next to him? The 18-24 year-old age group isn’t stupid. They see this stuff and know it’s not news to them.

We’ve turned the definition of news into mush. That said, I don’t believe the statistic.

The 18-24 year-old age group is the “if-the-news-is-that-important-it-will-find-me” generation. Those folks are on Facebook. They get news every time they log on. Their friends tell them the news in their worlds. (And for you not on Facebook, don’t think that they talk about what they had for breakfast.) Ths generation doesn’t immediately call it news the way we old-timers do, but when they watch, say, the president slow jammin’ the news, it is news. When they see the “Trending Articles” foisted upon them by Facebook, that’s news. (Well, some of them are.)

But if you ask them where they get news, the answer is Google and Yahoo and Jon Stewart and Huffington Post. It’s rarely actual, traditional, mainstream news organizations. The news may originate there, but they don’t identify those as the sources. And that’s one of the problems with using the generic term “news” in a survey.

I teach a class of 33 people in that age group. Because they are in college, perhaps they aren’t typical. (For the record, 68% of high school graduates last year went to college.) They are informed. They know what is happening in the world. Many of them say they get their news from friends. Ask them the news source, they say Facebook. But do they call Kony 2012 or Laurelynn Dossett and Friends singing about opposition to Amendment One news? No. But that’s what I call it.

News is being redefined — by news organizations that sensationalize and pander. By aggregation that blurs the original source of information. By a public that has lost trust in traditional news organizations. That’s not bad necessarily, but it is important that we understand what’s going on when we talk about things like this. And to say that nearly a third of the population between 18-24 get no news on any given day? Unbelievable.