Have you ever wondered why some stories get in the papers and some don’t? Who decides we’re interested in Cheryl Cole, Katie Price and Prince William this week? Well, news folk will say it’s because the public is interested – or even, more pompously, it’s in the public interest which isn’t the same thing at all. If it’s in the public interest, we’d all be worried about fishing quotas wouldn’t we?
There’s a thing called news sense – it’s impossible to quantify, or, ironically, even write down. But it’s the thing that tells journalists that, for instance, anything with gnomes, parrots or monkeys is going to be more interesting than anything with fairies, bluetits or guinea pigs. It’s sort of linked to some base curtain-twitching urge most of us have – a hotline to the spiteful tittle-tattle that dwells within.
Whatever it is, journalists guard theirs jealously and are fast to call others’ into question. Clearly with something this personal, it’s not fixed: one man’s “wow, look at this” is another’s “whatever”. Many hack conversations will be based around what’s on the front page and what you would have put there instead. There’s a huge element of fantasy here as those with the loudest criticism will almost inevitably have the least chance of being in the position to make that decision.
What we’re all looking for is a “talker”. A story that must be shared, or sparks discussion. That’s when we know we’ve hit the nail on the proverbial. It used to be that talkers could be measured by pub or white van conversations, clearly, ahem, an elastic yardstick.
Now, though, it’s easy to know what the talkers are. What’s being searched, re-tweeted, linked on facebook, clicked from Google news? This should make it simple shouldn’t it? We can look at what people want to read, discuss and pass on, measure it and create some model to be copied.
But here’s the rub. Now that we know what people want to read, lots of online news emporia spend much of their valuable time and resources chasing tales they know will be popular in the short term. That way appetites for the latest Cole saga, Robert Pattinson spit or Lady Gaga cough will be satisfied and, after all, clicks will be high that’s – sort of – what counts.
The danger though is that so much effort is spent going in ever decreasing circles around the hot topics that new – and equally interesting – propositions will be ignored.
The old-school news gatherers, like our friends at The Sun, are still gathering their stories with passion, authority and integrity (yes, really) but if the persuit of the click takes over in those places it might be sidelined there too.
I don’t know what the answer is, although I’m sure there is one. People want interesting news. They used to be happy to pay a few coins a day for it so there’s no reason to think that isn’t still the case, good journalists still know what people want to read… and more importantly what they will want to read about next. The news isn’t dying it’s just the landscape is changing faster than we can quite deal with. Parrots, gnomes and monkeys will always be interesting. But we need new ideas of paying for the hacks to get out there and find them. Any ideas?