“Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. That purpose is to provide people with information they need to understand the world. The first challenge is finding the information that people need to live their lives. The second is to make it meaningful, relevant, and engaging”. The journalistic principle of engagement and relevance means exactly that – journalists are asked to present the information they find in interesting and meaningful ways, but without being overly sensational.
There are two sides to this principle, however, and they must be balanced for the journalist to be successful. Engagement is what makes the story intriguing and readable. Relevance is what makes it worth the reader’s time, what makes the story important to the reader’s life. The industry has struggled to find that balance throughout its history, but studies, such as those conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, have shown that in the long term journalism that tends more toward the engagement (or entertaining) side without adequately addressing the relevant side will not be as successful.
During the Penny Press era, news consisted of little political debate and much human interest appeal. Stories focused on sex, violence, and features instead; they were sensational and engaging, but not always especially relevant to their readers’ lives. In 1851, however, the New York Times was founded, declaring its commitment to objective and reasoned journalism, and the swing toward the relevant side began. To aid that shift, the inverted pyramid style was developed in response to the strategic destruction of telegraph wires during the Civil War. Journalists had to transmit the most important, or relevant, information first in case the transmission was cut short. This style was then carried through into the post-war era.
During the period known as the era of Yellow Journalism, newspapers became for-profit ventures. Sensationalism still had a hold on the industry, with a focus on high interest stories and attention-getting headlines rather than useful information for the public. Stories focused on the mass appeal of death, dishonor, and/or disaster. In the 1890s, however, relevance made more of a comeback. With immigrants moving into the middle classes, news became more of a commodity. Sensationalism began to give way to the sobriety and objectivity of the New York Times. Two story models were in use at that time: the story model of the Penny Press and Yellow Journalism eras, and the informational model of objectivity.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, even Joseph Pulitzer’s notoriously ‘yellow’ New York Sun had become more literary. By the 1920s, though, objective style was beginning to be questioned. Objectivity presented only the facts, the relevance parts, without any commentary or color, and the world was becoming too complex for information alone. Parallel to the rise of radio, interpretive journalism was born to help explain what was happening.
From the Depression through the Cold War, tabloids continued to give way to seriousness in reporting. This trend continued into the 1960s and ‘70s, as the Great Newspaper Wars whittled down the number of papers in each town. The surviving papers were not the tabloids, but the serious papers, and the same was true of television news programs. The news products that people chose in the long term were those that provided them with the more relevant information, rather than entertainment.
During the USA Today era of the 1980s, news was increasingly being produced by companies outside of journalism, and a resurgence of primarily engaging news began. Radio and television had long since replaced newspapers as the dominant news sources, and papers began to add more feature-centered sections. When the industry addressed its readership losses, rather than addressing this substitution of entertainment for content, it focused on cosmetic solutions such as layout, design, and color, thus continuing the decline of relevance in newspapers. To illustrate, a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that news magazines such as Newsweek and Time were seven times more likely in 1997 to share a cover subject with an entertainment magazine like People than they had been in 1977. Whereas in 1977 those covers would have contained a political or international figure 31% of the time and a celebrity or entertainment figure only 15% of the time, in 1997 political figures were down to about 10% of cover stories, and celebrities were up to about 20%.
“Infotainment,” or the new version of tabloidism, is still a prevalent format for today’s news, but as a result “avoidance of local news has doubled in the past ten years,” according to data from Insite Research. The public continues to show a preference for relevant information over entertainment-centered coverage. Another study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, conducted between 1998 and 2000, found that stations that produced higher-quality news programs were more likely to have higher ratings, and even rising ratings, than those that produced lower-quality ones. In this Internet era, also, the web has become a vehicle for up to the minute updates on news and information, providing the public with a venue for relevant and engaging information 24 hours a day, allowing for public and civic journalism to get a foothold among the many other choices the public has to choose from.
Over the decades, the journalism industry has swung like a pendulum between a focus on the entertaining and on the significant sides of the news. Whenever it reaches one extreme or the other, the pendulum begins its swing in the opposite direction. Always, the optimal position for the industry and for the public is somewhere in the middle.