Sunday, June 7, 2009

Unchanging Interest

Some things never change.

Take, for example, the interest people say they have in politics. A new Pew Center report finds that interest in politics remains largely unchanged from 1987 to 2009 (scroll down to see the graph).

If anything, interest has inched up a bit. That's good news, though I suspect a lot of newspaper publishers wonder why all this interest fails to translate into an audience. Interest in local news has increased -- 70 percent said in 1987 they were interested in local news, 78 percent said so in 2009.

Here's a fascinating yet ironic data point -- newspapers are the chief source of local news, and interest in local news remains steady and even increases slightly, yet newspaper readership is dropping.

One way to understand this paradox is to combine readership of the print newspaper with its online site. The numbers look better, though of course for newspapers this shift from print to online comes with a significant drop in advertising revenue -- which pays the bills for the expensive job of covering the news (opinion is cheap to produce, but facts are expensive to collect).

Even local TV news is suffering, both in audience and in advertising dollars, and local blogs can't really cover local news, not with people on the street, in the courthouse, sitting through five-hour council meetings, going to crime scenes, leafing through police incident reports, and all the rest. So we have all this interest in local news but not enough interest to pay the bill to collect the news. That's the rub, and it's not one easily resolved.

It may be time to reconsider what we (the royal journalistic "we") call news.

Maybe a 3-hour sewer board meeting isn't news any more. Was it ever?

Maybe the political infighting between members of the city council really isn't that important to people. Was it ever?

Maybe burglaries in your neighborhood really don't matter. Oops, that one is still news. In fact, I'd argue we need to spend more time on crime coverage if we want to keep audience. People care about this stuff.

How do people define local news? High school sports? Crime? School activities? Zoning? Puff pieces and thumbsucking features on local folk? No one really knows. The Pew Center is terrific as a resource in asking the basic question, but someone else needs to burrow deeper into how real people define "local news" and probe the irony that people are so interested but so so interested as to pay for it.

We do know a few things. Wackos on the right say people are sick of the "liberal bias" of newspapers and that's why they quit. Sorry, but studies show again and again there's no real relationship between partisanship, ideology, and circulation. Loonies on the left make the same argument as the kooks on the right, but both are wrong. We simply don't know what people mean by local news, not really. We all have ideas, hunches, but those don't mean a hell of a lot. We need to understand more on this, because what people know about their communities is a cornerstone of democracy.

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