How the Format Affects the News

The medium is the messenger

Journalism textbooks sometimes act as though news values are fixed ideals that have been passed down through the generations.

If this was ever true, it is not now.

The proliferation of new ways of consuming information has led to wildly varying standards for what exactly constitutes the news, and this has made clear that the medium itself plays a huge role.

Consider a few stories:

  • A warehouse catches fire, providing dramatic footage to news helicopters, but it is quickly contained and no one is injured.
  • The president sends a proposed budget to Congress that includes a slight increase on carried interest tax rates.
  • Traffic is snarled during rush hour on a highway in a metropolitan area after a minor fender-bender in which no one was hurt.
  • A YouTube star spends 14 hours in a layover at an airport after her flight is canceled and spends the time making goofy videos.

Each of those stories is news to a certain type of outlet and not entirely news to another. The warehouse fire will be played up on local TV news and might even make regional or national news if the footage is dramatic enough. The budget will be dissected in newspapers and magazines and wonkier websites. The traffic jam will be all over local radio. And the YouTube star will be a hit online.

But newspapers, magazines and radio won’t have much to say beyond a photo caption or a brief about the warehouse fire. TV news will give a few bullet points about the proposed budget, at best. No one else will care about the traffic jam. Print outlets will note the existence of the YouTube video, while TV will mostly turn up its nose.

There are good reasons for this. Television is a visual medium, so it gravitates towards stories that look interesting. A lot of people listen to radio while stuck in their cars. Print is good for explaining complex subjects. And online outlets get traffic by focusing on niche subjects with intensely loyal audiences.

Newsworthiness, then, is not a set of static values, but a set of factors which exist on a spectrum:

Conversation — Conclusion: Outlets that have a lot of time to kill will focus more on creating conversation; those with strict limits on time or length will tend to focus more on drawing conclusions. A 24-hour news channel or a Sirius XM show will feature lots of debate and argument that doesn’t resolve the issue. A weekly or monthly print magazine with limited space will feature lots of research and reporting to determine what’s really going on.

Concrete — Abstract: Outlets with a more audiovisual format will tend to focus on more concrete stories that can be shown and heard; those that are mostly text-based will be freer to write about abstract issues. A local TV station will prefer stories like the opening of a new baseball field at the high school. An alternative weekly will spend more time writing about how the school district is allocating spending on sports.

Immediate — Timeless: Outlets that come out on a fixed deadline or are broadcast live will prefer more immediate breaking news; those that are online will feature more timeless content that can be read again later. A local radio station will do more segments on breaking news, weather and traffic. An online publication will run more features on perennial topics that can be resurfaced again in the future.

Local — Global: Outlets with a more limited geographical reach will tend to cover more local news and filter major national events through their local effects; those that are distributed nationally will focus more on broader national news. A local radio station will feature more stories about the metropolitan coverage area. A syndicated radio show with a national audience will put more resources into stories with interest in other areas.

Neutral — Partisan: Outlets that are more established and face less competition or are the clear market leader will tend to report from a neutral, objective standpoint; those that are newer or seeking a competitive advantage will often use a partisan lens to gain a more intense niche audience. A local newspaper in a one-paper town will cover the news in a standard Associated Press style. An alt-weekly in the same town will feature more commentary and analysis.

Broad — Niche. Outlets that depend on a bigger audience for advertising revenue will write on broader topics; those that rely on a base of subscribers for revenue will write on niche topics that inspire more loyalty. A network TV news show on politics will cover topics like the White House and national controversies. A subscription-based newsletter on politics will cover subjects like energy policy in depth.

Keep in mind that these values may shift even within a publication. A local newspaper may have one strategy for its print audience and an entirely different one for its online audience, based on the shift in medium.

This is just a start. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything.

Read More: It’s time for a new set of news values. Here’s where we should start. by Meredith D. Clark.