Lady C's InfoNapsterizer

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8.11.2004

Blogs and journalism - 3 -- content-free cable?

Ken Layne does an interesting exercise, checking the standard story-fodder of cable TV -- especially trials and abductions -- against the top topics in the blogosphere. And he finds a pretty big disconnect.

Anyway, this morning I was trudging through the mud flats where the desert used to be right behind the house -- a "new development" is being built, which means it's almost time to move again -- wondering why the teevee news loves the "missing what's-her-name" stories so much, when I never see anything about these worthless Court-TV events on the blogs. I look at a lot of these blogs. Lefty, Righty, legal, libertarian, jokey, group blogs ... blogs about books, movies, technology, comics, business, music, travel, dogs, specific cities or countries, food, etc. Blog writers and readers have got to be the biggest "news consumers" in the world, and yet I never see much of anything about these court cases & dead pregnant women. Was I missing something? Was there a secret world of blogs where people were as interested in these police melodramas as the news networks seem to be?

Apparently not. I checked the DayPop for mentions of the two big U.S. murder stories that seem to take up about half the news time these days, and found just 15 blogs referencing Laci Peterson and 16 mentioning Lori Hacking.

Compare that to 940 matching George W. Bush and 1,330 talking about John Kerry. Iraq? 1,640 citations. These murder cases, which are always about a white suburban woman, don't show up in the Top 10 stories or news searches. Not even in the Top 40 news posts on the entire InnerNut.

[...]

Yet ... it would be nice if the news producers and assignment editors paid attention to what the bloggy folk consider "Headline News." But they probably won't. The truth is, covering the murder du jour is so embedded in the TeeVee News Culture that it probably won't ever go away. Plus, it's really cheap and easy, compared to covering real news -- especially international stuff.

Here are some other factors that might be part of reason for the obsession with trials and abductions on cable.

  • The stories have a "plot" or "storyline" -- like soap opera or a mystery serial, "tune in next to find out what happens." "Hard news" may eventually have a storyline, but it will often take months-years for the tale to really take shape. And the story only really gets interesting qua coherent narrative when we the advantage of a long time perspective -- historians will be doing revisionism to the tale for centuries to come.
  • Like a soap opera, if you miss one epsiode it doesn't take long to get filled in on the key action you missed in the saga of a trial. So frequent snippets are an easy way to carry the story forward. With hard news, other than specific events (e.g. election day, a vote in Congress, a widely anticipated confrontation in a congressional hearing), the ideas that need to be conveyed -- and the background to understand them -- are usually too complex for a snippet. They also don't fit well in a serialization format because if you miss one installment you may find it difficult to understand future parts in a series.
  • The cable news stories are "character-driven," so there's much more to the tale than just reporting events of the day. Entire family histories are there to be unearthed and explored for explanatory value, both by reporters and by viewers at home who require only their imagination to get engaged in the story. Yes, political campaign stories have characters, but they're a lot harder to link to the positions taken by a candidate on issues.
  • The "on the courthouse steps" has a feel of immediacy, however artificial. And immediacy seems to be one of those defining features of our expectations in a Tv-videogames culture.
  • The trials and abductions set up additional programming for the cable 24/7 cycle. What would Larry or Greta talk about for an hour each night without them? The news programming throughout the day provides a built-input 12-hour promo form prime-time programming.

Layne concludes with a couple of intriguing thoughts. First is the (relatively common) observation that cable is ignoring a potentially attractive audience. Second, that cable may also be ignoring some potentially dangerous competition.

Just wanted to say that I know some teevee-news people follow the blogs. We are your Top Customers. How about some news? Let goddamned Court TV deal with the dumb trials that don't matter at all. I know, it's expensive to get real news. But if you don't figure out how to afford it, soon, you're going to be up against the video equivalent of news bloggers, and you will be sad about that.

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