Fast Freight Running
After 40 years of working in the journalism trenches, several things strike me about the current state of reporting and commentary. It has become fractured, partisan and suspect as the information load has dramatically increased. As a young reporter, I once had a discussion with a UC Berkeley economist who viewed the media and mass communication as a transportation system — a way to deliver goods and services no different than mule teams, ships, trains, 18-wheelers and automobiles.
He said the media is a system for delivering information — a digital highway. Right now the system is in disarray, but systems rationalize over time, he said, and eventually find their best, highest use in the marketplace, or they cease to exist, think telegrams and the Pony Express. The eminent economist I spoke with said movies did not kill radio, TV did not kill movies, trucks did not kill railroads, railroads did not kill ships and mobile devices have not yet killed telephones.
Experts say the first contact point for engaging audiences, particularly millennials, is to “make informative content entertaining.” Otherwise known as adding chrome to the packaging. In old-school journalism the golden rule was “kids and dogs sell newspapers.” For TV it was “if it bleeds it leads.” Nothing like a 4-alarm fire to get an audience’s attention. For a while broadcast news leaned on T&A to tell stories and engage readers. Today it seems giggles & jiggles, along with the spice of irreverence sprinkled on top, is the audience hook.
Journalism has two duties to audience — educate and entertain. The pendulum has swung heavily to entertainment. Lack of imagination in reporting substantiate news has made the act of informing people dull, leading to audience disinterest. But there’s another a more fundamental problem with the “freight” being pushed today, and young people are picking up on it.
Legitimacy and honesty, which are essential to good journalism and are sorely lacking today. Audiences, even young ones, know it and turn away when they sense those missing ingredients. Consider how many times recently someone has said to a screen, “That fool doesn’t know what he or she is talking about”? It’s like buying a car and expecting it to have wheels. If the basics are missing, people don’t buy it. Product integrity is essential, not something extra.
Getting people to consume information requires quality content engagingly packaged. It’s about telling a valuable story in a logical and exciting manner and spreading it around. It has been said that information delivery systems — the Internet, mobile devices, cable —all together are like drinking from a fire hose. We’re swimming in a flood of information and nothing makes sense. We’re drowning.
Getting people to drink comfortably requires deft packaging and on-time delivery. In other words, good editing and efficient delivery, like FedEx to your doorstep. And, behind every good journalist is a great editor who understands the audience being targeted and how best to serve them with the information they need to keep the rig on the road.
It’s true, television news media and responsible journalism are not the same things. So, what’s happening in the media now is the process of rationalizing delivery systems. Hyper-local news outlets, blogs, on-line magazines, independent videos and podcasts break down the content loads and efficiently deliver editorial products on time to the right address. Some systems will work and strengthen over time, some will serve micro-audience segments, some will go away. The point is that people — the market for information — expect integrity while being educated and entertained through seamless, cost-effective delivery.
Gathering facts and telling stories continues to be essential to people, just as it was in ancient times. What’s changing is how news moves down the highway and is delivered. It’s interesting to watch it happen and be a part of it. The information highway systems will firm up, but journalists still need to load their best stuff on the pallets and send it fast freight to their target destinations. In today’s marketplace of ideas well-built mental merchandise is sorely needed and there are plenty of people who’ll help unload and distribute the goods, if information products that meet demand.
In addition to writing fiction and poetry, Kate Campbell is an environmental and political writer. She lives at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers and publishes the Word Garden blog at http://kcamp300.wordpress.com/ Her acclaimed novel Adrift in the Sound is available through online booksellers.