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Editors or the audience: who decides the news agenda? 6 December 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Editorial Control, The Audience.
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Having given up on busses

Can the reader be considered a passive consumer anymore?

For the greater part of the 20th century editors have decided exactly what their audience will be exposed to on a daily basis. Journalists guarding the keys to the information gates if you will, making decisions from on high about what is important, and thus newsworthy, while the audience stares up in awe from below, safe in the knowledge that what they read is what really matters.

This of course is nonsense. According to the authors of Broadcast Journalism, “The skill of the news writer comes in drawing out the relevance of a story and presenting it clearly and factually while making the most of every scrap of interest. This way the news writer can give the audience what it needs to know – as well as what it wants to know.”

 

“The difference between what the audience wants and what the audience needs is huge”

 

This last point is crucial. Editors have always had the final word on what will go in their papers/broadcasts, where it will go and how much space it will be given based upon their judgement of a story’s worthiness. Editors must take the audience into account when setting out the news agenda (hence the hierarchy of news will be vastly different between television, radio and daily papers), but as BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones told us recently in a lecture, “It needs somebody to tell [the audience] honestly that is not interesting but this bit is.”

The difference between what the audience wants and what the audience needs is huge. For several years now the internet has been the primary source of news for a considerable number of people around the world, and with the internet has come the “most read stories tab”, a daily/weekly list of the top five or so pages on a website which reveals what the audience has chosen to click on in the largest numbers. The stories which regularly reach the top of these lists are proof enough of the need for a certain amount of editorial control of the news agenda.

 

“Considering the audience is crucial when setting the news agenda”

 

For example in 2007 Jon Henley posted a story on his Guardian blog detailing how a “very short, instantly forgettable” news story he wrote eight years prior about astronauts having sex in space  had managed to find a second lease of life after a Digg user posted a link to the story on the popular social bookmarking site. Within hours the story had taken off all over again and was soon at the top of the Guardian’s most read stories table, keeping the lead story on the home page about canoe man John Darwin off the top spot.

This could only happen on the internet, where the news is permanently archived, where search engines allow readers to find exactly what they are looking for and where the news agenda is increasingly at the whim of the audience. In contrast The Huffington Post ran a story in June that year about how a Texas Monthly Magazine cover with the headline “Astronaut Sex!” was the worst selling issue in the magazine’s history. While space sex might rank high in the interests of the web community it doesn’t seem to in Texas. Considering the audience is crucial when setting the news agenda.

In the past seven days, the week of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the top story on the Telegraph’s website was “Gordon Brown writes personal letters to X Factor contestants.” It seems even world changing events are no match for Simon Cowell’s pop empire, but at no point did this story lead on the home page, while the Mumbai attacks were analysed in immense detail and dominated the front page of the website for at least three days. It says a lot about getting the balance right between the wants of the audience and its needs.

Editors and writers will always, to a certain extent, set the news agenda in the media. The public might be well aware of what it wants, yet rarely does it know what would be good for it to be exposed to. But what’s the solution for all this I hear you ask? There is of course no easy answer but aggregators are a great help in balancing out editorial and reader control of the news agenda. Aggregators such as Netvibes and Google Reader can use RSS feeds to compose a constantly updated and personalised news page. Editors still decide exactly what it is that gets published, but it is the reader that chooses what it is they want to appear on their page. It’s a small step, but it is a step, towards a more democratic news agenda on the web.

Image courtesy of MildlyDiverting under Creative Commons licence.

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