6. What Customers Really Want from the New News

Consistently providing the highest quality news is the best policy for news organizations trying to survive in the niched media environment. However, they may have to change the way they cover issues—starting more often from the ground up rather than the top down. Every journalist has had the discouraging experience of producing a “serious” issue story, only to find that some entertainment piece captured the audience that day. A much-vaunted NBC health care special flopped when viewers fled to tabloid entertainment on other channels. Many journalists say that if the public wanted “serious” journalism they would provide a stronger market for it. Substance doesn’t sell, they say. There are three things wrong with this argument. First, even our “best” journalism consistently misses the mark because it is hobbled by strategy and score-keeping formulas that shut out the audience. Second, the tabloid approach cannot ensure a solid, long-term audience—particularly in the niched media landscape. Third, the issues piece is usually an isolated phenomenon. It often comes at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for consumers to respond. Now that consumers can access the news when they want, they are more likely to seek news they can trust.

Good Journalism Does Sell

Even though our best journalism often is flawed by strategy frames, cynicism, and other bad habits, the audience for serious public issues is impressive. Consider the following evidence:

• In October 1991, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a nine-part series by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele about the global economy, leveraged buy-outs, deregulation, and related subjects. The Inquirer reprinted 18,000 copies of the series and made them available the day the last story ran; the copies were gone in 48 hours. In all, the paper ended up printing 400,000 copies of the series. When it was published later as a book, it sold more than 500,000 more copies.(84)

• The first presidential debate in 1992, subjected to a fluke eight-second blackout on ABC at the beginning, still beat out a baseball game on CBS.(85) Televised local town hall meetings in Wichita and other communities also have led their markets, even when scheduled against major sporting events.

• The marketplace strength of the respected New York Times continues, while tabloids like the New York Post struggle to survive. Good newspapers have a halo effect for advertisers. Most would rather be associated with a credible news product than a tabloid or a circular.

• Although fewer people watch the evening news programs now than in the 1960s, about 31 million (a significant number) still tune in every night to ABC, NBC, and CBS. Ratings of the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” indicate an audience of 5 million viewers each day. CNN and C-SPAN have small hourly audiences but significant cumulative daily and weekly audiences.(86)

• Dataquest, Inc., a Silicon Valley research firm, was surprised to find how many multimedia customers polled in the summer of 1993 were interested in getting the news. “My initial hunch was that they would be more interested in entertainment than information,” said Bruce Ryon, the firm’s principal analyst for multimedia research. “But they were actually more interested in information, and news ranked fairly highly in the information category.”(87)

• Ross Perot’s folksy deficit seminars during the 1992 presidential campaign attracted enormous audiences.

Interest in public policy would be far greater, analysts say, if the news were released from its “insider” cage. The public’s apparent lack of interest in the official side of national and international affairs stems at least in part “from a profound sense of powerlessness,” reinforced by “the cosmopolitan and investigative style of what is usually defined as journalism at its best,” which emphasizes irony or the complexity of the issues, according to Russell Neuman, Marion Just, and Ann Crigler, authors of Common Knowledge. “Our subjects reacted with special enthusiasm to information about how to take control of public issues. We found, for example, that a fairly technical magazine story about the stock market was given high marks for interest by our audience judges because it emphasized what you can do about the problem.” They advise journalists to “incorporate the dimension of civic action into the substance of the news story.”(88)

Market surveys indicate that the people most likely to approve of press performance today are poorly informed about public affairs. “They see the news as essentially part of the entertainment package that eases their passage through their own real-world lives,” says Donald Kellerman of the Times Mirror Center.

Times Mirror polls have found that those readers and viewers who watch the news most closely are most critical of its quality. According to Kellerman, however, if the news is presented from a different point of view, treating readers and viewers as citizens, it acquires a different value. “When the news relates to their everyday lives, when it’s presented that way, people are interested.”(89)

How might this work? Covering Washington news from the citizen up, ABC correspondent Aaron Brown recently made the unmanageable, dull subject of federal taxes and the budget deficit into a dynamic story, with direct connections to real people’s lives.

Brown went to Knox County, Tennessee, where citizens had just voted, two to one, for Republican promises to cut federal programs and taxes. “People are tired of paying taxes and not getting anything in return,” said one citizen in Brown’s piece, summarizing the conventional wisdom of the community.

Then Brown reviewed the federal budget and calculated both how much Knox County provided in taxes and how much it received in the form of welfare, food stamps, Medicare, Social Security, roads, tunnels, buildings, national parks, federal prisons, university research, and military facilities. Citizens realized, at the end of Brown’s report, that they had to choose which programs should be cut in order to reduce their income taxes.

The idea that people are less interested in current news fare because they simply aren’t reading or aren’t interested in events isn’t true, surveys indicate. Young people are reading more books and magazines than ever and checking out more books from libraries.(90) In fact, young people are “generally more interested in what’s happening in the larger world around them” than their news consumption would suggest, according to a Times Mirror Center poll.(91)

“Is this fear about declining interest in news correct? Or, as it seems to be the case, do such surveys merely show that people are disenchanted with the news they are getting?” asks John Maxwell Hamilton, Dean of the Manship School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University. “Poll after poll shows that people simply don’t think establishment media do a good enough job.”(92)

The False Promise of Tabloid News

The tabloid trend, which has affected virtually every news organization in some fashion, may offer some short-term advantages; the sexy story may grab channel surfers and beat out the competition for a while. But it is exactly the wrong way to strengthen the long-term competitive position of the news in the new media landscape—where success will depend on customer loyalty.

The tabloid journalist is missing an opportunity by resorting to formulas that may actually be turning off the most important consumer group—people who want news as opposed to those simply looking for entertaining background noise. This group becomes vital to the future of journalism as the marketplace breaks down further into niches.

Local and national television news programs holding consistent first-place positions in their markets are most often those offering the highest-quality news, rather than the tabloid approach. While this is especially true in Boston, Minneapolis, and Dallas, it is a good rule of thumb for most communities, according to telecommunications consultant John Ellis.(93)

In the closely-contested Boston market, WCVB-TV has retained its longstanding number-one position as both the most respected and most watched local television news, in spite of intense promotion for a new “Miami-style” (“if it bleeds, it leads”) newscast established by rival WHDH. “We swept every newscast for the first time since 1979” in the February 1995 ratings sweeps, WCVB News Director Candy Altman noted.(94)

The arrival of WHDH’s noisy new tabloid style prompted WCVB to jazz up its graphics and to promote some stories it might not have emphasized otherwise, but, Altman says, her tabloid competitor has been forced to tone down its “gotcha” journalism.(95) “There is not a summary rejection of this [tabloid] model,” Altman concludes, noting that in some markets, tabloid newscasts are very successful. “But the stations that do this aren’t [usually] number one.”

As long as the more serious, high-quality newscast avoids becoming “stuck up,” Ellis and Altman believe it can beat the tabloids. If it is connected to citizens’ concerns, not just to official events, it has even stronger audience appeal over time.

Tabloid-style news isn’t a good long-term strategy mainly because entertainment niches already are too crowded with similar programs. Ellis notes, “There will always be somebody who can outsleaze you. That’s your downfall.” In addition, tabloid formulas distance people from the news, just when making connections is what counts. In spite of temporary ratings boosts, tabloid-style newscasts usually don’t generate the kind of customer loyalty that matters in the niched media marketplace.

At WCCO in Minneapolis, for example, management found that tabloid coverage backfired because it weakened the station’s link with its audience. John Lansing, who was TV News Director at the time, recalls that WCCO’s tabloid news experimentation in May 1992 temporarily put it on top in its market, but it couldn’t keep meeting the expectations they had set. “Ratings actually dropped for newscasts that were missing a heavily advertised, sexy topic,” he says. WCCO had to be “even more outrageous the next time in order to preserve our numbers.” According to Lansing, this formula also made the station uncomfortable. They knew they were distracting their viewers with entertainment instead of connecting to them with real news. “While they were watching tabloid-style news, viewers actually distanced themselves from the ‘real’ community, the one in which they work and live and play every day. We realized we didn’t know our community’s needs, and, worse, we were contributing to the community’s disengagement from itself.”(96)

WCCO convened town hall meetings and developed a different approach—critics called it a gimmick—that turned tabloid on its head. “Family-sensitive viewing,” as WCCO pioneered it, promised to reduce or eliminate violent, gory news videos and stories during family viewing times. WCCO now remains in first place in its market, without the tabloid teasers.(97)

Offering an alternative to the tabloid news on other channels also has worked for WBMG-TV in Birmingham, Alabama. “We started getting away from making sure that we had three ambulances on the nightly news,” says senior reporter Don Holfield. WBMG substituted news about local government and issues of concern to its audience. “The ratings—we’ve seen a slight increase, but the response is tremendous,” he said.(98)

Build It and They Will Come

Although new technologies break the journalist’s monopoly on news, they also hold great promise for reviving the reliable journalist’s true market value. The customer will seek out what she wants, when she wants it—if she knows it is there.

The key to the future is developing greater credibility for a “brand” of news, maintaining strict standards and accountability for the quality of that product, and then putting that quality content into all of the new formats. “My advice is to do one thing. Do it well,” says John Ellis. “Create a national brand in one medium, then leverage it into all the others,” agrees Turner Entertainment President Scott Sassa.(99)

Some of journalism’s most respected leaders understand this well. “No longer will the viewers be guided by what they see, but solely by the reputation of the news broadcaster and the organization behind him. Brand names will count,” concludes Frank Stanton, who helped create the old “CBS News” that set the standard for broadcasting excellence.(100)

Katherine Graham, dean of American newspaper publishers, concurs. “No matter how information is transmitted—no matter what form it takes—quality and integrity will count for everything in the years to come, as they have in the past,” she says.(101) A Wall Street Journal house advertisement proclaims, “What matters most to our customers, and to us, is not the form of delivery, but the content being delivered. Exclusive content that is essential, not just of passing interest, to our customers. Proprietary content carrying brand names that signify premier quality.”(102)

Even though high-quality news programming has its off seasons, as CNN experienced between the Gulf War and the O.J. Simpson trial, having a reputation for being the source for news pays off when the next big news story hits. One can go tabloid overnight, but developing a reputation for quality is a long-term sell. “It’s going to take you 7 to 10 years to do it,” Ellis cautions.