How the hell did we make hard news so boring?

tn_rubber-tree.jpg Just what makes that little old ant, think he’ll move that rubber tree plant . . . (High Hopes)

Americans, particularly young Americans, have tuned out the news; they are not only ignoring their grandparents’ medium, the newspaper, but also limiting their intake of public policy and political news through broadcast media; and it is by no means clear that people of any age are developing the habit of consuming news via the Internet. I think that is a fair distillation of the Harvard University report titled, Young People and the News, that I blogged about yesterday.

I had closed yesterday’s piece with a lament of sorts about how this disengagement from the news — which I define as the people, circumstances and dilemmas of government, industry and society — weakens the notion of self-governance.

But today I want to ask, if that is so, if Americans who reinvented self-rule about 300 years ago, have lost the will and wit to rule themselves, who is to blame and how do we fix it?

Perhaps blame is the wrong term but I’m busy and in any event my own failing is to look for scapegoats and easy fixes so with that caveat let me say the prime culprit has to be mass media and specifically the newspaper, which has seen circulation decline in real terms since 1990 (citation). So it’s not like this is a problem that has suddenly appeared. The newspaper industry, which is the base of the news industry, the source for broadcast and now the whipping post for the blogosphere, has been losing its mojo for a generation.

And now, of course, there is a widespread recognition that the newspaper industry is in crisis but that stems not from this long, steady loss of influence and importance in people’s lives, and in the life and governance of the nation, which is the self-appointed mission of those who would call themselves journalists. Instead most of the hand-wringing is about the shift of advertising dollars to web media, which is surely important to those of us who are employed by incumbent media.

But such worries do not address the crisis in journalism, which had been worsening even during the 1990s, when newspapers and other mass media were hugely profitable. So a question to ask now is whether journalism can revive itself inside a struggling industry? That remains to be seen, but in the first place it’s not as if the paid professionals are any longer the sole custodians of the craft. Citizen media, though young and financiall struggling, has potential. Non-profits and think-tanks are doing more and more of the heavy lifting to identify the big problems and advocate solutions.

Yet newspapers and their mass media kin remain vitally important in the circulation and explanation of important ideas and the formulation of public policy. The lesson of the last two decades has been that these institutions which house journalism have bored their audiences into ignoring the very issues that exercise the muscles of democracy. As the Harvard report said:

“Many hard news stories have a numbing sameness–another act of Congress or another presidential speech–that can block them from memory even when they get heavy coverage.”

So professional storytellers have to try new tricks to engage their readers in the stuff that would otherwise make their eyes gloss over (In this prior posting I allude to the technique of that great British journalist, Mary Poppins).

And who knows, the current adversity may be just the shock journalists need to rediscover what drew their audiences in the first place — the people who invented this craft a century ago delivered stuff that made people’s eyes pop, not roll.