“Why aren’t people sharing this?” is a less useful question than “why did people share that instead?”
On Friday, the President-elect of the United States of America agreed to pay $25 million to settle allegations of defrauding thousands of students who took real-estate seminars at his eponymous “university”.
On Saturday, the President-elect of the United States of America used his favourite medium to lambast and demand an apology from the cast of “Hamilton” in New York for using their stage to ask that the incoming administration “defend us and uphold our inalienable rights”.
These are different stories, but they are related. They both offer insight into the values, principles, weaknesses, and behaviour when under scrutiny of a man who will shortly be one of the most powerful people in the world.
But on Saturday night, only one of them dominated the insular world of media twitter: it was Hamiltakes and meta-Hamiltakes all the way down.
Among the takes: we (the media) shouldn’t pay attention to a whiny criticism of the Hamilton cast because we (the media) should be paying more attention to the Trump University scandal or other stories about the unprecedented behaviour of the president-elect.
The handwringing manifested in various ways, including a viral tweet that managed to fundamentally misunderstand media, audiences, and Google Trends all at once.
There were people who criticised news organizations like the New York Times for giving the Hamilton story more prominence on its website on Saturday than it did the (now hours and hours old) Trump University settlement. And there was an outbreak of righteous “I know it’s not Hamilton but this actually matters” with links to stories about Aleppo, or the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“Don’t get distracted!” was the cry. “Your audiences deserve better!”
Here is a thing about audiences, and about news: they can care about multiple things at the same time, and there will always be multiple stories happening at once.
Here is another thing about audiences, and about news: they will not care about everything equally all the time, and newsrooms will always have to prioritise their coverage of the multiple stories happening at once.
One of the most patronising tropes that has gained currency in recent years is that people are too dumb to make good decisions about what they want to read or watch, and so Sage Editors must ensure we dole out Worthy Reporting That Would Also Win Some Pulitzers to make up for the rot of cat videos and quizzes that purport to guess your age.
Making condescending value judgements about our audiences based on what we think we know about their media preferences is not a particularly useful way to spend our time.
What would be much more useful, and what requires both analytical sophistication and in many cases stronger reporting, is a clearer understanding of why certain formats and themes consistently find big audiences.
We can reject the disease of curiousity gap headlines and invest more in photo editors or community managers or investigative journalists.
We could go a long way just by reframing abstract stories about legal settlements and corporate malfeasance as concrete narratives about the people who were harmed.
We could spend less time wondering why “no one cares” about the emoluments clause of the US Constitution and more time helping audiences understand why the influence of foreign governments and multinational corporations on the inhabitants of the White House is considered a threat to national security.
We could refrain from mocking people for being interested in what actors who look just like them have to say and instead consider how to convey the gravity of the daily threats to free speech and the media coming from a man who will soon command a formidable surveillance apparatus.
We could try a little bit harder to deliver mobile user experiences that don’t require our audiences to fight through autoplaying video ads, app-store redirects, and “read more” buttons to get to the stories that we didn’t do a particularly good job of framing in the first place.
We could reconsider the notion that success is only measured in the millions of page views by challenging our data scientists to spend some of their energy assessing other forms of editorial impact, and our publishers to shore up our business models.
This isn’t about audiences not knowing what’s “good for them” and it isn’t only about the preponderance of metrics-driven editorial decisions, or of the dominance of a certain platform with a reputation for delivering fake news at the expense of all others.
It is about us taking audience attention as a given even as we make them jump through hoops just to get to commodity news stories to which we’ve attached a boring headline and a sad stock photo that takes 30 seconds to load on their phones.
We took our relationships with our audiences for granted; we handed over distribution to the platforms; and we lost the trust of our readers. That’s on us to win back. And we won’t do it with shit like this.