When I became managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen in 2011 (then Editor in 2013) I started to have a lot of contact with readers — emails, phone calls, and a surprising number of handwritten letters. It was through this contact that I began to get a sense of what our readers really cared about, and what they valued in their subscription. Two things stuck out:
The first was that, by and large, what readers cared about were things like comics and puzzles, the daily weather map, the TV listings. Somedays it seemed like we could have put a picture on A1 of the prime minister consorting alien space prostitutes, but if we also printed the Sudoku upside down or got the “On this date in weather history” wrong, that is all I would hear about.
The second was that readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet. This baffled me at first. If you already know the story, why are you angry at me for not running it? All I would have given you is redundant information, I thought. But I soon realized they weren’t angry because they had been left uninformed, they were angry because we had, in one way or another, let them down.
The lesson I took from this is that for a great many readers, consuming the news is not about gaining information. Instead, it is about routine (hence the calls about the crosswords) and identity (hence the anger about missing stories they knew about). People don’t pick up a daily newspaper to learn new things. They do it to have their habits, lifestyles, values, and identities validated and reinforced.
Grasping this is the key to understanding why so many people hate the mainstream media, and why they are gravitating increasingly towards more niche and often highly partisan outlets.
In a recent blog post, the economist Tyler Cowen hit the nail on the head when he wrote “the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status… The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.”
And because we all care a lot about status — and we care a lot more about status than most of us realize — we end up resenting the media for, essentially, denigrating our own status. To read a newspaper therefore involves being insulted on a regular basis. And thus people hate the media.
What can be done about this? Unfortunately, if what we want is effective journalism that actually does on occasion hold power to account, comfort the afflicted, or do whatever self-important journalistic catch-phrase you like, then it is hard to see how things could be otherwise.
The reason is that the news is no more about information for journalists than it is for readers. Reporters, columnists, and editors, are just as concerned about status as readers are.
The most obvious way this plays out is with “scoops” — getting something before the competition, or better, having a story no one else could even get. It is through the competitive drive for scoops that journalists establish their status hierarchy, and it is through how they play their scoops that editors establish their paper’s identity.
That is why the front page of a major newspaper is best understood not as a guide to what news events or stories the paper thinks are most important to its readers. It is a guide to how the editors are positioning the paper in the context of a status competition with its competition.
A good recent example of this is the play the Globe and Mail has been giving its stories about questionable dealing in the Vancouver real estate market. It was a great story that was the outcome of an incredible amount of hard work. As a result, the paper continued to play the story as its line on A1 for days, even as the story became a mopping up operation, the competition started matching it, and it became less relevant as a national story and was often far from the most important news story of the day.
Why did it do this? Because it was a story the Globe “owned”, and the editors would be damned if they were going to let it go. We did the same thing at the Citizen with our big scoops, most notably the 2012 Robocalls investigation by Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, which won them (and us) the biggest journalism awards in the country that year.
And the trick of course is to do the reverse with your competition’s big stories: If your competitor gets a scoop, even if you manage to match it there is no way you can put it on the front page. You have to bury it somewhere inside, to show your disdain for their cute little scooplet.
Is this honourable? Not particularly. And you can see why it would seriously annoy readers who don’t share the status rankings implied by the stories that are played so prominently in the paper.
But is it effective? Absolutely. The best analogy I can think of is with the adversarial legal system. Neither the prosecution nor the defense are interested in “justice” — they are interested in portraying their case in the starkest possible terms. The accused is a violent sadist who should be locked away for years. No, he’s an innocent victim of circumstance. The outcome of this process is what we call justice.
Or another good analogy is with the parliamentary system of responsible government, in particular question period. It’s not a coincidence that lawyers, journalists, and politicians are routinely ranked as the most disliked professions in the world. It’s because the law is not about justice, politics is not about democracy, and the news is not about information. But in each case, that is what emerges, by harnessing the status-conscious competitive natures of the participants.
It’s not pretty, but it works.