I have been fascinated to see the backlash faced by some of the world’s great newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, for cutting down on their investment in environmental reporting and choosing rather to home in on things such as horse-racing and awards shows.
There have been huge outcries from those who believe, for example, that global warming is the biggest news story around.
They were miffed at the New York Times‘ decision to strip down the resources it puts into its blogs to cover sport, style, travel, leisure and nothing at all on the environment.
The NYT claims that this will not mean that its coverage of environmental issues will decline because it will be able to source more than enough material from elsewhere.
Are they doing the right thing?
I think they are.
The problem with issues such as the environment is that the ordinary Joe doesn’t actually give a hoot. And those who do give a hoot are usually in the minority.
This is human nature. And if one is looking for proof, just have a look at the most popular TV shows, magazines, movies and the like.
The common denominator is a combination of escapism and voyeurism.
Something that here at home, the ANC simply doesn’t understand in its determination to get the SABC to show more educational programmes for example.
A cursory look at what the most popular programmes are on TV right now and its clear that what the vast majority of viewers want is entertainment and not education.
The thing is of course, the environmental lobby is extremely vociferous and in the face of US legislators and media.
And whether or not global warming is or isn’t the biggest news story around, the point is the subject is not selling newspapers or any other mass media for that matter.
Consumers have simply had an overload of news telling them that the world as we know it is going to blow up in our faces and then being told that actually, it’s not as serious as some would make out.
Human nature is also such that it does not really give too much of a hoot what happens in 100 years time. Or for many, what happens next year or next week.
Back here in South Africa, the HIV/Aids story remains one of the biggest news stories but again, it’s not selling newspapers. Sporting celebrities who shoot their girlfriends sell newspapers. Policemen dragging taxi drivers behind their vans sell newspapers.
The Washington Post and the New York Times are at least being honest with themselves and their shareholders.
They have realised that big news stories that appeal to readers are not those that emanate from lobby groups that shout the loudest but rather from the silent majority who just want to know which horse to back in tomorrow’s main race and which celebrity fell on her arse during the Oscars.
But, as I have said before, it’s not easy to try and determine precisely what consumers want from their media because they tend to fib mercilessly when they are part of a research project. After all, who would want to admit to only being interested in horse racing when you can look good in front of an interviewer or at a focus group by claiming to be profoundly interested in global warming or the machinations of international finance.
Which of course, makes an editor’s job quite difficult – unless they take the time to look at the content in top selling magazines, radio and TV shows and newspapers.
Editors very rarely see themselves as part of that great, silent and sometimes unwashed majority, which is why they often tend to pander to minorities. Or to immerse themselves in intellectual profundity.
Personal ‘gut feel’ doesn’t work any more. One needs to get out into the street and do what the people are doing. Consume what they are consuming.
Meanmwhile let’s keep an eye on the NYT and Washington Post and see whether horses do in fact pip global warming to the post.