No News Is Not Good News

For too long, media companies have slashed newsroom jobs and replaced hard-hitting journalism with celebrity gossip, sensational crime stories and pay-for-play content. They defended these decisions by arguing that they were just giving the people what they want.

The latest “State of the News Media” report from the Pew Research Center suggests otherwise. One third of the people Pew surveyed say they have abandoned a news organization because of the declining quality of news.

However, this is a two-way street. When I talk to people about the media in their communities, they tell me that they are the ones who have been left behind.

They feel abandoned by TV and radio stations that were granted access to the public airwaves in exchange for serving the public interest. They feel abandoned by the policymakers who fail to pressure media outlets to fulfill this commitment. They feel abandoned by news outlets that show more political ads than actual political reporting. They feel abandoned by the newspapers that cover only those communities whose demographics will sell ads.

The data in Pew’s report resonates with years of anecdotal evidence, and it should put a nail in the coffin of the media companies’ refrain that they’re “just giving people what they want.”

The Poynter Institute’s Bill Mitchell saw this coming. During a year-long fellowship at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, he wrote a paper calling on news organizations to adopt a user-first approach to journalism.

“The best prospects for sustaining journalism in the future are rooted in the most important stakeholders of its past and present,” he wrote, “that collection of readers, viewers and listeners also known as users.” At the time, he called for an “intervention” at the ground level in local communities.

The new data suggests that the time for such an intervention is here. According to Pew, the future of news organizations will likely hinge on their ability to provide the kind of quality reporting that people want. Newsrooms need to renew their connections to their communities, rethink what it means to serve the public and rebuild their capacity for the kind of quality content that will bring people back.