Friday, August 28, 2009

Reasons for Paying Attention

I wrote yesterday about what the reasons might be for people to pay attention to public affairs.

Attention to the news is necessary, according to the traditional argument, in order for people to know what's going on. An informed public, so goes the theory, is vital in a democracy. Let's assume all that (though it makes an interesting argument for a later date as to whether it matters if a public is informed or not).

What are the reasons for paying attention?

There are a lot of reasons to not pay attention.
  • There are a zillion TV channels now. You don't have to watch TV news unless you absolutely want to. Many have chosen to do just that.
  • The news itself -- especially on cable TV -- is often petty, partisan, and particularly focused on the inane.
  • I get my news off Facebook ... whatever friends happen to link to.
  • The source of real news -- newspapers -- is often presented in a dull, dry manner.
  • It's so easy to just be entertained. Or if you want to feel informed while being entertained, there's always The Daily Show or Colbert Report.
I'm sure there are other reasons to not pay attention. But what are the reasons to pay attention?
  • It's your responsibility in a democracy
  • Take your medicine; it's good for you
  • Being informed is fun!
Yeah, the reasons to pay attention, they kinda suck. Responsibility? Pfffft. I'm sure there are other reasons people should pay attention, and they do when a major story breaks, when things get serious (and when that happens, funny how CNN's audience shoots up compared to Fox News. Just saying).

So Jon Stewart has taught us an important lesson. For many, the news has to be entertaining. And Bill O'Reilly has taught us that, for many, the news has to be highly partisan. And Rush Limbaugh has taught us that, for many, the news can even be on radio. And the Internet has taught us that, for many, the net is for porn.

I'm being a bit of a pessimist here. The NYTimes and Wall Street Journal prove that, for many, quality serious news will sell. At the hyper-local level, people will pay attention if you cover your community in a way that rings true to them, stories that seem real and not artificially distanced from the communities they strive to describe. People will also pay attention if you somehow manage to work sex into the story, but that doesn't always work, so it's a challenge for many types of news stories.

Ultimately, getting people to pay attention to what's happening the world, that's not so hard. Getting them to pay attention to News, that's a bit harder. Getting them to pay for News, that's even more difficult. And thus we come to the core of the problem -- that journalism is expensive, at least the way we've been doing it for decades, and the revenue models are unraveling in some ways.

We've got to come up with ways to convince people to not only pay attention, but to pay for paying attention.

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