In the last few days, I've read two interesting articles about news and its audience. In very different ways, the articles look at how traditional media favor the predictable stories. Today, as I watched the Scoble/Facebook/Plaxo mini-maelstrom spin up before turning into an interesting discussion of privacy / data portability / contracts (pick a theme, any theme), I thought about what becomes the lead story online. Celebrity scandal, it seems, sells online, too.
No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
- Henry Mencken
John Hockenberry confirms low opinions of network television news in the January/February issue of Technology Review. Among the many indictments, he describes the network's fixation on a chosen narrative and stories that provoke an emotional response. If it bleeds, it leads, unless it contradicts the approved story line. It's interesting to consider the same mindset planning local TV stations' murder-and-mayhem hour (aka the 11 o'clock news).
They misunderestimated me.
- George W. Bush
Moving from screen to print, Michael Hirschorn dissected front page story selection in the December issue of The Atlantic. Comparing most-emailed lists from major newspapers to their front pages, he discovered that readers' interests are not framed by the media-driven narrative:
The most-e-mailed lists… were a rich stew of global affairs, provocative insight, hot-button issues, pop culture, compelling narrative, and enlightened localism. In short, they were interesting.
So, basically, quality writing captures people's interest. Shocking. Hirschorn sees newspaper readers choosing interesting stories over important stories, but in combination with Hockenberry's stories, I wonder if that's a reaction to the drumbeat of the narrative.
The notion of a user-selected front page is an interesting thought, but we know from Digg and Techmeme that the democratized approach has its own issues. Imagine the fun if "optimizers" found a way to game the front page of the New York Times...
No, I'd rather see editors and producers get serious with the journalism stuff. Compete with YouTube on the celebrity noise if you must, but remember the audience that is attracted to quality content and that will share what it finds interesting.
Social media headlines
So, anyway, I'm indulging my Twitter habit today, and suddenly everyone in the bubble is talking about Scoble and his little tiff with Facebook. Eventually, everyone blogged their opinions, and it took over Techmeme. The Wall Street Journal has $100 oil; we get a screen-scraping scandal.
Once the story hit the blogs, it got picked up by the memetrackers, but if you really wanted to keep up, you had to follow Twitter—a huge time sink, and impossible to read it all. What if someone were to build a memetracker that summarized Twitter discussions in near-real time? Not just stats, popularity or visualization, but an actual summary? Then everyone could be in on the 30-second news cycle that is the social media echosphere.
Yeah, I know, it has all sorts of challenges. If it were easy, I'd do it myself.
Update: Enter Tweetmeme. Will this do the trick?