and why it matters
A well-informed citizenry is the foundation of a functioning democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson said in 1787, “I would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers.
For the past 35 years, it has been my pleasure and privilege to work with some of the finest and most professional news organizations in the world, including, but not limited to The BBC, The New York Times, CBS News, Spectrum, Time/Warner and many others.
But now, the news business is in trouble, and so are the very underpinnings of a democracy dependent upon honest and trustworthy information.
In the past decade, more than 2,000 newspapers across the US have closed down. In the shadow of the Internet, old business models no longer work. The Knight Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are teaming up to provide more than $500 million to boost local news. This is admirable, but this is hardly a sustainable model for news and journalism for the future.
And sadly, what happened to newspapers a decade ago is now threatening television news as well.
In a rather terrifying statistic, more than half the American population now goes to social media as its primary source of news. For those under 16, the number jumps to a terrifying 86%.
But social media, being an open platform, is not a good source of information for an ‘informed’ public. Spend some time on TikTok, with its more than 1.6 billion users, and you can quickly learn that the earth is in fact flat; that no one ever went to the moon; that humans and dinosaurs co-existed on this planet a mere 6,000 years ago and a good deal more. The content of TikTok, as well as Instagram with its 1.35 billion users, or Facebook with its 3 billion users covers pretty much every aspect of information and society, from “science” to politics and beyond, much of it plainly wrong, but that seems not to matter.
There are no filters on these social media platforms. There is no guarantee of veracity. There is no fact checking. Anyone may upload anything, and they do. And false or misleading content is often presented in a very convincing and compelling way.
What’s more, social media giants like TikTok or Facebook are controlled by highly sophisticated algorithms that continually fine-tune the ‘news feed’ that you get. This is to maximize time spent looking at your screen, so that your attention and eyeballs can be sold to advertisers. The upshot is that the ‘news feed’ that you get will be quite different from the news feed that someone else gets. The newsfeeds are engineered to perpetuate previous beliefs or prejudices, or even colors and font styles that you find attractive. Your view and your perception of the world can, and often will be 180 degrees from someone else’s, but to your mind, this is clearly the way the world is. These are hard facts. The others are obviously wrong in their beliefs.
This fine tuning and fractionalization of ‘news’ is why the nation, and indeed much of the world is now so sharply divided into hostile camps. The manufactured hostility between these two or more camps may be bad for the nation, but it is good for Facebook and others. It keeps you watching, and it is your attention that is being sold, and it makes Facebook or Google or TikTok incredibly profitable.
Traditional journalism organizations such as CBS News or Spectrum or The New York Times don’t selectively engineer the news for different readers or viewers. They present the same news feed to everyone. And they take enormous care to make sure that what they are presenting is factually accurate and true. Organizations like these are essential to a working democracy. But they too are under pressure from the enormous power of social media sites that are stealing their audiences as well as advertisers, and leaving the public less well informed.
The traditional news business is in trouble. NBC Nightly News gets an average of 5 million viewers a night, in a nation of 340 million people, or just under 1.5%. According to Reuters, the average age of a viewer of NBC Nightly News is 64 years old. In the meantime, there are 243 million Facebook users in the US alone, or 70% of the population. Facebook also skews far younger, 13–34 years old.
There is no point in going to all the trouble of researching a story, fact checking it, producing it and putting it on the air if no almost no one watches it, no matter how good or important it is.
How can you get more people to watch dependable and accurate news?
Alan Turing said, “only a machine could beat a machine.” In this case, he was referring to building a computer to break the German Enigma Code, but the lesson is well taken.
If you want people to watch your TV news stories, then you have to craft them in a way that people will want to watch them, not have to watch them. And running “Breaking News!” lower thirds every few minutes is not going to attract anyone. You have to beat the machine at its own game.
The answer to vastly increasing viewership, or what we would call, viewer engagement, is right in front of us, in the machine. But it’s not on Twitter or TikTok, it’s already on your TV set, just on a different network.
Netflix, which appears on the same screen at TV news, has 238 million subscribers. Amazon Prime Video has 200 million subscribers. While NBC Nightly News is free, people have to pay to watch Amazon Prime or Netflix or more than a dozen other streaming services — and they do. But what is it about Netflix, for example, that attracts so many viewers?
They tell a story.
Netflix and the others have simply tapped into the most basic of human desires- the desire to be told a story. Joseph Campbell laid it all out quite clearly in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. We repeat the same basic story line over and over. The story of Moses is little different from the story of Spiderman or Luke Skywalker or Barbie, for that matter. The journey of the hero. There’s a reason that Spiderman videos get 1.2 billion views a week, that more than a billion people worldwide have seen Star Wars; that Barbie, the movie, grossed $1.4 billion since it opened. That is the power of storytelling. We instantly connect with it.
We don’t instantly connect with a reporter stand up, an interview, a few man-on-the-street soundbites.
But what would happen if we married the power of character-driven storytelling to excellent journalism? That, in fact, is what we have been doing with some of the most dedicated television journalism companies in the world — delivering the news in a very different way. Netflix meets news. The result? It works. It works astonishingly well. Wherever we have done it, the stations with whom we are working have seen their viewership, their ratings, their all-important ‘audience engagement’ skyrocket. Most of them have moved to the #1 spot in their markets.
News stories naturally lend themselves to this kind of storytelling. How many movies have you seen on Netflix that are based ‘on a true story’? Now in news, we can tell the true story, but deliver it in a very different way; in a way that makes people want to watch and keep watching. Character, arc of story and resolution.
When television news was invented in the 1950s, it did not come with an instruction manual. God did not descend onto Rockefeller Center and instruct David Sarnoff that ‘thou shalt have an anchorman at a desk and a reporter in the street with a microphone.’ We made it up. Television, as a medium, is very young — compared to print. We can feel free to re-invent it in any way that we want; in any way that works. And, as it turns out, character-driven storytelling, married to great journalism actually works.