osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

No, it's not that everyone else is stupid . . .

There is a belief that radio and television (by which I include cable) news is focused on stupid trivialities because the people want it that way. There is also a belief that the U.S. is generally more right-wing/socially conservative/fiscally conservative than left-wing/socially liberal/fiscally liberal, and this belief is reflected in television and radio news coverage.

Along comes the PEW Project for Excellence in Journalism, http://www.journalism.org/. A recent study distilling two decades of survey data shows that Americans in the last two decades remain interested in actual "hard news." (survey: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/574/two-decades-of-american-news-preferences, story about survey:

More after cut.

In other words, as the mainstream news media go haring off after the latest celebrity story, they continue to leave their audience behind. As a spin-off, most people are convinced that "everybody else" is stupid, because if the MSM keep getting more and more sensational and right-wing it must be because "everybody else" is watching.

But, in point of fact, this is not the case. Ratings for prime time news have steadily declined, as has readership for newspapers. Meanwhile, people keep ranking the internet and "fake" news sources (e.g., The Onion, the Daily Show) as their top sources of news. In other words, the market is reacting in accordinace with the survey data showing that the news outlets are not delivering the desired product.

So why does the news keep trending away from hard news and progressive talk to "soft" news of celebrity scandals and dominance of conservative commentary? I offer the following explanations to be used in combination.

1) Industry folks are herd beasts who misread the data. Take the 2004 study that showed that about 20% of Americans between 18 and 29 relied on the Daily Show or SNL as their "primary news source" for presidential polictics. http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/TV/03/02/apontv.stewarts.stature.ap/ And the continued stats that show downward decline in news ratings and newspaper readership. This produced a lot of hand wringing about how "people these days" -- particularly "young people" -- don't stay informed about the news. In fact, a follow up study by CNN demonstrated that people who relied on the Daily Show as their primary news source were better informed about news than those that relied on mainstream news outlets (Fox News viewers, btw, scored lowest). http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/TV/09/28/comedy.politics/index.html

So while one way to explain the data is that the MSM are creating a crappy product and the market is reacting by shifting to sources that actually meet the need (blogs, alternate media, foreign media), the other way to explain the data is that people are less interested in news and make the news even more empty-headed and sensational. Guess which way MSM has trended?

2) The economics of news production. There are two ways to increase profit: increase sales or cut costs. For the last 15 years, MSM has focused monomaniacly on cutting costs (in part because they read the data wrong). Because quality news is expensive to produce, news media try to produce less of it in favor of less expensive programming. Hence the preference for talk and analysis over actual reporting. Five talking heads in a studio for an hour is a heck of a lot less expensive than a full time bureau of investigative reporters and production crews. Repurposing stories and other content is much cheaper than developing new content. Building a stable of syndicated talk that you own and run is cheaper than letting your outlets develop their own programming suitable for local markets. Talk radio began to take off in the 1970s and 1980s, as the better audio quality of FM made it much harder for AM stations to compete on music. But conservative talk did not take off until Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s.

Limbaugh was an innovator that found an audience hungry for his show, no question. But the success of the genre owes much more to Clear Channel. Clear Channel owns the company that syndicated Limbaugh. As part of its market expansion, it acquired a stable of conservative talk and used this nationally syndicated programming in place of the local and regional programming that had previously dominated. The initial financial success of this via cost cutting has, over the last several years, been entirely eliminated by the loss of audience. Even with no alternative, increasing numbers of people simply shut off their radios because they could not find any programming of interest. What remains is an extremely devout but much smaller audience, dominated by an older and therefore less advertiser interesting demographic.

I've blogged on this subject before, of course, but I can never resist the urge to point it out again as the numbers keep confirming this. In particular, I find it gives me tremendous hope for the future of our nation. Despite what our mass media would have you believe, people are not that shallow or that stupid. I place no bets, however, on the mainstream media.

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