Monday, March 18, 2013

Motivating the News

How do we motivate people to attend to the news? The motivation research tells us we are goal-directed beings and real motivation requires people to:
  • need to,
  • want to,
  • or believe they should
That last one, we can try all the preaching in the world but it's hard to convince folks it's important to keep up with the news.  It is important in a democracy, but beating someone over the head won't help and there's something to be said for rational ignorance.  So that leaves out the "believe they should" side of the equation.  Schools teach that.  Civics classes teach that.  Jobs teach that.  News organizations, don't even try.  You look foolish.

That leaves us with "need to" and "want to."

The last one, "want to," comes damn close to pandering, at striving desperately for the lowest common denominator to drive online traffic and we all know which sites do this, some of them quite successfully.  It's hard to make people to want to know the basic ingredients of local journalism -- the city council, the zoning decision, etc. -- unless of course they're directly affected by someone wanting to plop a factory next to their neighborhood.  Then zoning becomes the most important thing in their lives.  Can we do a better job of covering what people want covered, of telling the stories they want to hear?  Yes.  Is that our main job?  Hell no.

Harder is convincing people need to know what we know, they need to hear this story, need to look at these data, need check out this video.  There are gimmicks, such as writing in the second person and using you a lot. Avoid it, please.  It works once, maybe twice, and then grates.

To me, we've got to come up with new and refreshing ways to convince people they need to know what we know.  We do a lousy job of making important stuff interesting, especially at the local level, in which any story that can be dull seems to be specifically tailored to be as dull as possible.  No sparkle, no wit, no clever turn of phrase.  Some stories, as they say, tell themselves.  Damn few do, though, but we write or tell them as if they do.  That's a mistake, something we've got to fix.

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