The way people think about news is very different from how they behave. I think it’s because they don’t feel connected to news anymore.
When I speak to people about being in the news business there’s often an eyeroll or maybe a condescending tone that follows. But when I ask how they get their news most people are suddenly eager to tell me about an app, a podcast, or a story they recently discovered on social media that they really care about and follow closely.
More recently, people have told me they’ve contributed to The Guardian, subscribed to The New York Times or they’ve started paying for news from another trusted source.
We know people are interested in news. The research shows a huge appetite for it. But for some reason people are in denial about that.
Why the disconnect? Why do people think news is dying when in fact they can’t get enough of it? It’s not a supply and demand problem. There’s plenty of both for a healthy market.
In my opinion, the problem is that people don’t feel connected to the news. And most of the news experiences out there today are making things worse.
Personalised experiences are isolating us and reducing our field of vision, and generalist news sources are overwhelming us with unprioritised lists that go on forever.
I find myself not tapping on stories in some news apps because I’m worried I’ll get bombarded with stories that I don’t care about.
Brexit is a good example. I’m generally really interested in stories about Brexit, but I don’t want to know every single story referencing the word. I want to know about the big stories.
I want the professional editors at reputable news orgs who are employed for the purpose of knowing what’s important to decide that for me. I want to know about the news stories appearing across all the news media website home pages, both left and right leaning. When that happens I’m paying attention.
Equally, I want to know what my friends and family think is important.
If my crazy uncle is reading about Brexit I want to know if he’s getting spoonfed something bonkers or if he’s learning things that I should actually know about.
I’m happy to read Brexit stories with alternative views. I want to understand the issue from all angles. But I need a trusted source to pick out the stories to read — not a machine that’s going to assume I’m on one side of an argument when it shouldn’t assume anything at all about my actions.
There’s also a fine balance between too much and not enough news. A lot of that has to do with the medium, not the news.
Newspapers and TV broadcasts found formulas for deciding how much news to offer. The same news orgs worked out how much to put on their website home pages. But mobile devices have taken over, and news needs to find the right sized packaging for that environment.
There are plenty of reasons to feel like news is failing, but I think that has to do with a failure to recalibrate the relationship people have with news.
This is why The Guardian is succeeding with their reader funding model. They’ve reclaimed the idea of a relationship with their readers. You can see it in the way they invite ‘contributions’ from people.
Being connected to the news requires a careful balance of do’s and don’t’s.
There’s a certain amount of intimacy with a mobile app that creates opportunities for connection but also must be respected. Our friends are in there. We can pay for things with our phone. It’s always with us. It can even interrupt whatever we’re doing at any moment. Applying those capabilities the right way can make people feel connected. Doing it the wrong way is very destructive.
Being connected to the news is only a little bit about involving me. Newspapers and TV broadcasts never needed my opinion. News on my phone doesn’t need it, either. Inviting my input and my views will create loyalty with a news brand, but that’s at the deeper end of the “customer journey” as it’s called these days. That’s not what most people want from their news sources.
Clearly, there are features native to the medium that make us feel connected, but that’s just table stakes.
Being connected to the news is a feeling not a feature.
When everyone was following the Serial podcast, we all felt connected to the story. The podcast was good, but, more importantly, people were talking about it and sharing their interest in it.
We feel connected to the news when someone dies. It doesn’t matter where you get your news, when a legend like Stan Lee passes it becomes a source of conversation for people of all ages everywhere.
That’s a watercooler moment.
More recently when I’ve been talking to people about the news and that distant look in their eyes appears and the dismissive tone rises I ask about what they miss. My sense is they miss knowing what’s important and what to talk about.
News is and always has been social glue. Without the connection to other people it’s just noise.