Jun 16, 2010

The "them" generation

We are all marketers now. To succeed in today's media, one must successfully engage The Audience - which often means repeated and desperate attempts to meet the mysterious and mercurial expectations of a largely unknown "them."

In this cause, former Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller argues that journalists need to better understand the human psychology to devise ways to carry forth good journalism in an age when the Audience makes all the decisions.

From his post at Nieman Journalism Lab:
The sciences of the mind offer a lot of help if we are willing to learn from them. They explain, for example, why the immediate crowds out the important. Why bad news attracts attention more than good news does. They can show us how emotion interacts with the human brain’s inherent mental shortcuts to lead us systematically to erroneous conclusions. They can point us to the ways in which search algorithms interact with emotions and these mental shortcuts to mislead people about the relative importance of various pieces of information. They can even help us understand the way our ability and impulse to read other people’s minds draws us to a story and light up other secrets of how and why narrative works.

It should be clear by now that the challenge for journalists from here forward is not only the steadfast adherence to the values of accuracy and independence and the social responsibility to provide a civic education but also the development of new ways of thinking and talking about how to advance the social mission of journalism in a radically and rapidly evolving environment. The answer is not to figure out how to transport 20th century news presentation into 21st century delivery mechanisms but rather to create a new rhetoric of news that can get through to the changed and changing news audience
Phrases like the "sciences of the mind" sound anachronistic to me, but let's set that aside. Frankly, I'm not sure how practical any of this is, even though I sympathize with the goal. Grasping the basic tenets of human behavior is hard enough; do we really believe we have the ability to use that limited knowledge to create a "new rhetoric of news"?

It's not that change is bad - or that new ways of communicating the news impossible to construct. What I'm critical of is this bizarre faith that measurements and data are the keys to better communication. We should embrace the author/ego vs. crowd/id dynamic and let new forms of news develop organically - indeed, that's going to happen whether we plan for it or not. We should stop being slaves to the metric and stop condescending to the "them."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

but newspaper journalism has always (read: for the last 60 years) been based on the premise that they know better than you what you need to know. you're right, the sorting of news will happen organically, but to an industry that has been safeguarding their position as self-appointed gatekeepers for decades, the notion of a marketplace of ideas is something to support on paper only.