"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Signal to noise ratio

Look at any newspaper, watch any newscast, and compare the amount of space and time given to actual hard news (breaking events, politics, court, natural disaster, policy, war, events of community and/or global significance, local crime)  opinion (arts reviews, political punditry, letters to the editor, columnists),  useful practical information (recipes, DIY tips, travel stories about places you might actually go, restaurant reviews, community calendar listings), pure entertainment (the comics, serialized fiction, humour columns and feature stories of  and the amount of absolute junk - film studio advertising thinly disguised as 'entertainment news', bullshit advice columns, stories based on bullshit polls or worse - dodgy 'scientific" studies based on a test group of 17 people, celebrity gossip, clothing ads thinly disguised as 'fashion news', product placement stories ("According to the cornstarch marketing board, cornstarch can be used to help you lose weight and improve your car's gas mileage!", new product stories, 'business profiles", new business openings, almost all investment news, anything to do with the internet, especially internet memes, horoscopes (what century is this?) - and worst of all, second hand stories about any of the above ( Our newspaper has learned that London's Daily Mirror is reporting that Princess Kate will give birth to quintuplets! Oh those wacky Fleet Street papers!").
I think features and practical information have their place in a newspaper. I think opinion deserves its own section and I'll buy one newspaper over another on the strength of their columnists, arts reviewers and comics. I'll even concede that in our sports-obsessed society, the case can be made for sports deserving a few pages of its own.
But the junk news, celebrity gossip and other garbage that originally began running in newspapers to attract a broader readership among the great unwashed no longer attracts readers. No one buys a newspaper to find out what happened to the goddamned Kardashians. No one buys a newspaper to find out how their stocks are doing or what company they should invest in. No one buys a newspaper to find out how healthful and tasty new improved lo-fat sugar-free Soylent Green might be. No one needs to read about how 8 out of ten people are potential serial killers base on a study of fourteen federal prisoners  and two jail guards. Nobody buys a newspaper to find out what Selena Gomez said about Justin Beiber's vestigal tail in People Magazine or which starlet Maxim thinks is the most "do-able" --- Maybe they did, once upon a time, back when the daily newspaper or suppertime daily new hour was the quickest way to get information and the only source of information.
Now, people who want celebrity gossip can get a steady drip of it from TMZ, Entertainment Tonight and the other more specialized arms of the entertainment industry PR machine. People who want the score and the stats from the big game right away don't wait for the morning paper, they watch the game on their smartphone or download the scores-and-stats app and get the information seconds after the final buzzer. No one -- and I mean no one who cares how their investments are performing-- relies on the 24-to-48-hours-old stock price information in the newspaper. People looking to buy a car don't suddenly go out  and buy a newspaper for the driving section to read about how every single car "reviewed" by the marketing stooges automotive journalists has its charms - when was the last time you read a car review that called a vehicle a complete lemon? Even in the unlikely event that such an article were to be written, no newspaper whose driving section is paid for by advertisements for car dealers and carmakers, is likely to run it. Even stories about product recalls usually run in another section.

Not everyone who writes for a newspaper or who stands up in front of a camera with a microphone is a journalist.

Sometimes I lament for my profession. Nobody goes to journalism school because they idolize Walter Winchell or because they want to get stuck writing thinly-veiled advertising copy, but too many embrace the easy path to a paycheque and write what the marketing department thinks people want to read. ("Hey, this Justin Beiber kid is selling a pile of records and has a million twitter followers -- we should carry a Justin Beiber story every day! Our sales among ten-year-old girls will skyrocket and we need that youth market!) Most people going into journalism dream of breaking the next Watergate, not sharing the startling and important information that a study by the National Cocoa Research Council of 27 laboratory test subjects found that eating chocolate will enhance your sex drive.

But just to keep the ink pumping in our veins we cater to the whims of the market, thinking that will save us as all the eyeballs of the great unwashed migrate to infotainment television and the internet. The crowd has moved on to the latest pretty thing and they are not coming back. The newspaper industry and journalism in general need to ask our collective selves why people get angry about the press. Do you hear them bitching about how we don't run enough sport analysis, hollywood gossip or stories about how 45% of people claim to have had a prayer answered by their guardian angel. No, you don't. You will never hear complaints about that shit because no one paid their $1.50 at the news stand for that crap. They get mad because we missed the story about the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary cheating in the last election. They get mad because we didn't tell them about how that company covered up that pipeline leak. They get mad because their third cousin in jail for backsassing a cop and no one from the press is interested.

 If newspapers and journalism want to survive, we need to get back to afflicting the comfortable and provide the afflicted with more bread and less circus. We need to stop trying appeal to people who want infotainment and cotton candy and won't read a newspaper until their particular ox is gored on the front page, and start concentrating on covering a few more ox gorings  in a more comprehensive and meaningful way. We need to do our jobs a little better and try giving readers more of what they really buy the newspaper for --- NEWS.

We need more signal and less noise.


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