Fully explained in wicked-awesome detail: The wire-content increase debate from No News is Bad News

by Jason Preston on February 28, 2009

If you were at NNBN on Thursday night, or even if you just watched the video stream I embedded yesterday, you probably noticed the flash point revolving around terms like “news hole,” “wire content,” and “Kathy Gill” (around 40 minutes into the video).

The really unfortunate thing about that whole confrontation is that Kathy does have a good point, and because she made a little mistake in presenting it, none of the people who really needed to hear it, heard it.

Let me back up, because I can see the blood starting to boil a little bit already.

Kathy did not do a good job of saying what she meant to say. That is her mistake, and she later admitted it (this is all on video!), and clarified it. But by then, it seemed to me that she’d already convinced a good part of the crowd that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Can we all agree, at least for the duration of this post, to step back from those initial reactions, and take a fair look at what I think Kathy was trying to say?

OK. Here we go.

What Kathy initially said, which is factually incorrect (emphasis added below) is this:

There’s a PhD dissertation in our department and the person who wrote it is sitting in the audience who did and analysis of the content in the P-I and the Times and what I’m about to say is going to be sacrilegious to many of you. There’s not a heck of a lot of difference in the local news coverage. Now we’re talking about news coverage, not the Op-Ed pages.

And most of the news is not delivered by newsrooms, it’s delivered by wire services. Raise your hand if you’ve noticed the increase in the number of wire stories in the Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I in the last two years. [Many people in the audience here raised their hands]

You can watch this all for yourself. A few minute later, Candace Heckman, Breaking News Editor for the Seattle P-I took the audience microphone and corrected the factual error that Kathy had made.

What Kathy said a few minutes later, to clarify her real point, is this:

So, two things, I [word I don’t recognize, but which I think means “said”] two things, one was an analysis of the local news covered in the two papers and that there was no significant difference in the coverage in the papers, that was one thing, that’s the PhD dissertation. The observation about wire stories in the paper was anecdotal, not backed up by evidence, but I’ve heard it from too many people who’ve told me that they no longer subscribe to either the P-I or the Times becaue of the wire content.

[Here Candace again interjects to say that the statistics don’t back up that assertion]

But it doesn’t matter. If that’s the perception and that’s why people are not longer subscribing to the paper, then that’s the perception.

To which someone in the audience shouted:

“It doesn’t matter if something is true?”

And Candace completed the thought:

“That’s the reason why we’re here. We don’t just go out and spout things that we know we can’t back up with evidence.”

OK.

Here’s a cool-down space.

Ready?

Good.

First, Kathy did not do a good job of making her point, or really clarifying it later. That’s OK – she’s only human, and there’s no reason we need to hang her for making one mistake.

Second, to me, it’s clear that Candace and that someone in the audience missed the point (again, not necessarily their or anyone’s fault). That point is a very important one, and it is this: perception drives consumer activity.

So yes, person in the audience, it doesn’t matter if it’s true.

If you think that Sony makes crap TVs, are you going to buy a Sony TV?

If you think that the Times has increased their wire content, and you don’t like wire content, does it matter whether or not it’s true? Probably not. You’ll probably act on your perception and cancel your subscription.

That is exactly the situation that Kathy is trying to say she and other news consumers have experienced.

Is that perception universal? Of course not. It’s like that wonderful quote: “I can’t believe George Bush won the election. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

Sure, you might not. But that doesn’t mean that nobody voted for him.

I personally have shared Kathy’s perception – it has seemed to me that as our local papers shrink in size, the amount of content supplied by the AP has grown in proportion. But clearly that’s not true. It’s also perfectly clear that there are plenty of people who don’t have that impression.

The point is: when it comes to selling newspapers, it’s not enough that it’s true.

There’s a reason that organic food is labeled “organic.” How else would the consumer know?

{ 2 comments }

1 orcmid 03.01.09 at 9:34 pm

Nice one. Makes for interesting sociological study.

2 Ben 03.03.09 at 3:53 pm

YES, someone finally said it. 🙂

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