Journalists have plenty to deal with these days. More responsibilities with less time. Layoffs left and right. Incommunicado vice-presidential candidates.
But nothing may pose a greater struggle, at least on a journo-existential level, than the Nude Britney iPod Conundrum.
This is the well-known problem of how to balance journalism’s civic and intellectual responsibilities with the fact that stories or headlines involving “nude,” “Britney,” and/or “iPod” are the surest route to high Google rankings and traffic. (I’m coining the term after “Nude Britney iPod” became a kind of catchphrase at an SPJ conference panel last weekend.)
And, now that I have optimized my search potential, I’ll start referring to the problem by its most common metaphor: broccoli.
Howard Weaver addresses the Broccoli Problem in a recent post:
I had a discussion like this in Tacoma once, when I mentioned that it’s hard to make a living urging people to eat their broccoli when the guy in the next booth is selling curly fries. Editor Karen Peterson raised her hand to remind me, “Howard, they giving away the curly fries over there.”
And so they are. But if all you eat is curly fries, you die young and fat, clutching your heart. We need to be sure we are selling not just broccoli but balance, nutrition, longer life. Many people want that. We can sustain our mass audiences by finding ways to serve that impulse, with time for dessert along the way.
I like the direction Weaver is going, but I want to take the idea a little further. It’s not enough just to reframe boring news as important — to say, “Yes it’s broccoli, but sometimes you need it. Even if you hate how it tastes, smells, and feels, not to mention how the little green seed thingies always get stuck in your teeth.”
We need to realize that the kinds of stories newspapers typically run often make “important” news boring or hard to understand — and that we have to make this news relevant and interesting again. More importantly, we need to realize that interesting, more approachable coverage of these topics already exists. In fact, it’s within our reach — if only we could change our way of thinking and linking.
In other words, the choice shouldn’t be broccoli vs. curly fries. It should be limp steamed broccoli vs. crispy Thai chicken with broccoli and red pepper in chili jam sauce.
It’s not a matter of pulling a Jessica Seinfeld and tricking readers into reading the healthy stuff. It’s a matter of finding the stories on weightier topics that people might actually find relevant and engaging.
Think the Georgia-Russia conflict deserves coverage? One approach is to treat the newspaper like a required-reading textbook in a college course.
This was the strategy, for example, of 79 of about 350 English-language papers whose front pages appeared on the Newseum’s website on Aug. 20. (Yes, I have weird hobbies; and I’d link to these 1A’s, but the Newseum doesn’t archive front pages.) These papers all put Russia-Georgia on the front page — 12 days after the fighting started, by which time the “news” for days had been a stream of false cease-fires, unfulfilled pullout promises, and warnings from NATO.
Of those, 27 were full stories (one with a local angle; three with varying degrees of context or analysis; and the rest incremental news of the day); 48 were text or small photo teases; and four were centerpiece photo teases. Many of the headlines loudly announced the lack of news, like this memorable tease hed: “No action from NATO on Georgia.”
Another way to cover that story would have been to realize these articles help few readers understand or want to read about the conflict. Instead, a paper could have told readers something like this:
“Russia invaded Georgia X days ago. Like many of us, you probably haven’t thought about Georgia since, um, ever and may not even know where it is. Nonetheless, this is actually a big deal. To help explain why, we’ve compiled links to the best and most interesting stories on our website.”
On its site, the paper could have linked to pieces like The New Republic’s useful primer and Q&A with a former State Department official who now teaches at a university in Georgia; the Times of London’s context-heavy analysis; and Fred Kaplan’s Slate column about the Bush Administration’s response to the conflict (before and after the fighting started). These would have been infinitely more useful to readers than two weeks of incremental-update wire copy.
Or take the subprime mortgage crisis. Instead of day after day of the same old basic story (more foreclosures! more bad mortgages! more shady lenders! yes, you just read this story last week!), a paper could have simply directed readers to This American Life’s “The Giant Pool of Money” special.
This mentality can also lead to better coverage of less-serious topics. Instead of running PR-driven celebrity puff interviews and box-office numbers, for instance, papers could link to the Onion A.V. Club, Best Week Ever, and Bill Wyman’s hype-puncturing Hitsville blog.
Getting these kinds of stories into print may be difficult, but that’s no reason to keep bombarding readers with unhelpful news because of vague notions of tradition (i.e. “this is what we’ve always covered”), duty (“we can’t just give people Nude Britney iPod”), and historiography (“we’re the first draft of history”). Newsrooms should either get creative and figure out how to incorporate new sources into print, or concentrate on local news and voices in the paper and leave the rest for the web site.
Either way, there’s no excuse for force-feeding readers soggy-broccoli news when so much crispy-Thai-chicken-broccoli coverage is just a link away.