When General Treasurer Gina Raimondo appeared on Dan Yorke’s 630WPRO radio show, yesterday afternoon, to toss some not-so-subtle barbs Governor Lincoln Chafee’s way, Twitter streamed forth with a sort of group liveblogging of the political spar. It’s tempting to tisk a bit at the superficial interests that sometimes prevail in the news cycle, and I’ll confess to having slipped fifty characters into a tweet of my own to that effect.
The collective governments of Rhode Island have to come up with tens of billions of dollars over the next two or three decades to cover pensions, and a movement is afoot to slip the local plans into state control. The state is preparing to go into the casino business, perhaps erasing conflict-of-interest laws in the process. It appears that concerns about a wind farm operated by a proposed East Bay Energy Consortium are being addressed by proposing to make it a subsidiary of the now-infamous Economic Development Corp. (EDC). And we’re hyping a rubber-band war between politicos who aren’t up for election for another two years?
Two days ago, a participant in Dan Yorke’s show — a regular caller, gleeful about the state’s comeuppance — lambasted the local media for being all-in on the 38 Studios story now that it may be too late to avoid the precipice. Where were the investigative reports when the state was shirking its oversight responsibility? Again, it was tempting to agree. It’s great that Dan McGowan has reviewed the EDC’s meeting minutes, discovering that 38 Studios and the tens of millions of dollars of Rhode Island money potentially on the line were never discussed. But wouldn’t it have been a better service to Rhode Islanders to have known (and changed) that delinquency while it was in progress?
Here’s the thing: The political conflict is fun. The star power of Curt Schilling and the panic of public officials are exciting. And journalists have to make a living.
Imagine, for a moment, if the newspapers, Web sites, radio shows, and television programs were filled with all of the subtle details required to rout out potential controversies, perhaps stopping them before they become kinetic. Would you buy that product? Would you visit GoLocalProv for a daily dose of “the EDC didn’t discuss 38 Studios, and members have stopped returning my emails”?
I would, but every indication is that I’m peculiar that way.
So, since journalists have to make a living — and generate additional revenue for all of the supporting personnel and equipment involved in operating news organizations — they have to do one or more of a few things: They have to sell a lot of individual instantiations of their products; they have to reach enough people to attract advertiser interest; or they have to find large donors to fund their operation. In all cases, they’ll have to show either that they’re generating substantial interest or (more difficult) that their stories are having an effect.
The reality is that a great many sources of entertainment and information that are quite removed from the grind of journalism are now competing for audiences’ attention. Moreover, technology increasingly gives the audience ways around the producer’s salable product. We’ve reached the point that many people are getting their headlines (which is all that many people read) from their own pages on third-party Web sites like Facebook and Twitter that allow the news producer no marketing shell at all. YouTube is ensuring that video and audio media are not immune to the trend.
To grab enough page views to justify advertising fees, reporters have to generate content that will break through the stream of 140-character calls for your attention. “Politicians fight!” will draw clicks; “In-depth review of uneventful meeting minutes” will not.
That’s not to say that the more-dry, more-important news couldn’t be presented in a way that makes it somewhat interesting, but the layers of time and cost accumulate along with the amount of digging and subtle explanation required. Perhaps the audience will read a well-written story about what’s not happening that ought to be happening, but will it attract enough additional attention that the journalist only has to produce one every couple of weeks?
A parallel story can be told with local, city-and-town-level news, and a Wall Street Journal article about Patch.com tells its basic conflict:
The idea was to target wealthy small communities that generated about $20 million a year in advertising though TV, radio, newspaper and direct marketing.
“We basically said, ‘based on our model, if we could get [less than 1%] of that $20 million, we would have a profitable Patch in that community,” Mr. Brod said. “And then, multiply that by thousands of communities across the country, and it becomes a very material and interesting business.”
Patch, however, has fallen well short of that target. AOL says the business is on track to bring in between $40 million and $50 million in revenue this year. That translates to an average of $50,000 for each of its 850 local sites. But the average Patch site costs between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to operate, Mr. Armstrong told investors last year, or a total of $160 million.
Just as corruption in government is ultimately the responsibility of voters, extensive news coverage ultimately relies on the audience. Points of complaint against the media are often well taken, but unless the person complaining is willing to quit his or her job and live the life of a hobo reporter, laying blame isn’t very useful. The question of the era is how we can begin lifting the lowest common denominator of both reader interest and writer production.