Monday, February 22, 2010

Want vs. Need

In case some of you have been living in a cave for the past four days, I'm here to fill you in on what's been going on.  Let's see, it snowed in Denver all weekend, USA beat Canada in Hockey, oh, and Tiger woods apologized to the world.

My last entry took a look at his apology and dissected what he did right and what he could be criticized for during the admittedly emotionless prepared speech.  Immediately following the speech, the internet, talk shows, television analysts exploded with their take on the press conference, what he said, how he said and why it mattered.

One of the most prominent complaints or criticisms I heard on Friday, and into the weekend, was that the entire rigamarole was a huge waste of time.  Reporters, producers, editors, photographers, all news veterans lamented that the press conference was broadcast live on network and cable stations, live on the radio, streamed live on the internet.  "Why was this 'news'?" they cried.  This cry was echoed by many in the general public who missed a chance to see Drew Carey be accosted by an 80 year old woman because of the apology.

Millions complained, millions watched:

I had my own theories as to why news networks devoted so much time to Tiger's conference.  I chatted with some friends of mine still working in newsrooms and got their take.  Many agreed that while it wasn't an earth-shattering or life-changing event, it still presented news value to their audience.  Simply put, they felt it was something that held interest for the viewing, listening and reading public.

I was curious, so I asked for the viewing numbers from the press conference.  According to Monday's rating numbers, as provided to me by a local television station, the televised press conference received a rating of 13.6.  This equals approximately 210,000 households viewing the event (note - this is out of an estimated 1.54 million potential viewing households in the Denver market). 

Put another way, this is a larger group of viewers on average than watches the late night, 10pm news broadcast on the leading station.  A 13-share is pretty darn good for any time slot on just about any day.  Salespeople can make a lot of money selling advertising for a show that continuously gets a 13 share.

Also keep in mind that this number does NOT include cable viewers in Denver at the time, which was estimated at about 60-percent during the press conference.  This means it's likely that 210-thousand number could jump considerably when those viewers are included.  It's not unrealistic to imagine that the number could double.  This means it's likely that nearly one third of the potential household viewers could have been watching Tiger read his statement on live television.

But does this answer the question as to "why" it constituted news?  No, not really.  Remember, I've gone over the general characteristics of what defines news.  Proximity, timeliness, impact, relevance and wow factor.  I'm not going to go through each characteristic and apply it to Tiger's apology.  But I am going to look at this from the point of view of want vs. need.

A cautionary tale:

When I was producing talk radio, I worked with a talk show host, Erin Hart, who was solid, but sometimes had a hard time grasping the difference between what her viewers needed to hear and what the viewers wanted to hear.  I remember one day when she was adamant that we spend the day talking about the mass starvation and genocides taking place in Africa.  At the same time, there were had been a recent police shooting, a news report about the failing DPS system and, of course, her favorite target, conservative Colorado Governor Bill Owens was still in office.

I insisted that any of those three topics would generate more interest, more conversation, it was talk radio after all.  No, she just KNEW that people would care if she could just tell them what was going on half a world away.  She was determined to MAKE them care.

We spent three hours with one phone call and received a stern lecture from our program director at the time.

Certainly news carries an aspect of information you need to know.  For instance, you need to know if the car you're driving will stop when you apply the brakes.  You need to know if there's a toxic dump in your neighborhood.  You need to know if there is a dangerous person prowling around your area.

But in reality, these are stories that are covered in a very quick, basic reporting style.  Just the facts, ma'am, and then you're informed.  But news covers a lot more than just those types of stories.  They cover stories of interest, stories of the odd and unusual and stories that the viewers, readers and listeners will find interesting.

These are stories of want, not necessarily need.  Tiger's story was a story of want, that much is clear.  Network executives believed that there was enough interest in Tiger's first public statement since the incident that they pre-empted regularly scheduled programming to carry it.  But I believe the decision went far beyond just the wow factor element of the story.

I believe they looked at this through the same prism they use when making decisions about news programming in general.  There was interest in the story, first, because it was Tiger.  He's a celebrity, a major celebrity.  But more than that, there was timeliness and relevance and, in some cases, impact.

Many, many Americans struggle with marriage infidelities.  To see a person like Tiger go through the same issues, it makes him seem more human, more relatable.  This adds relevance to the story.  There is timeliness, obviously, because it was happening right then.  Then there's the impact.  There is an economic factor to take into consideration.

According to AP, trading on the stock market took a huge dip during the apology.  Then, right afterwards, it ticked up again.  Sponsors who depend on Tiger's endorsements are struggling to figure out what to do with him and his now tarnished image, while others have already dropped him.

You see, this story mattered.  Sure it was one man and it didn't involve any heinous crime.  But it still mattered to millions of Americans.  In this instance, the people determined what was news, not the networks.

There's a reason why shows like American idol gets so many headlines.  It can turn a song like "Pants on the Ground" into an overnight hit because people watch it, and people talk about it.  Because of this, your local news and the networks will devote time in their coverage to shows like Idol.  It will bring in viewers and that's important to stations struggling with budgets.

What this means for you:

Let's face it.  If news covered only the important, need to know only, stories that many define as news, would you watch?  Maybe you would, but many, many others would not.  This isn't the age of Edward R. Murrow anymore.  It's the age of the internet and news takes on a lot of different faces today.

As a small business or non-profit, you have to weigh this want vs. need issue when deciding on what to pitch to a news organization.  Sure, your event may be for a good cause, and it is worthy of news coverage because people SHOULD know about your efforts.  But is it something that the public is really interested in?

You have to look beyond just the "what people should know" aspect and find something in your story that will really interest people.  You can do this by listening to what people are talking about in grocery store lines, listen to talk radio, read the papers and watch the local news.  Look up the most popular Twitter subjects, check in with some pop culture blogs and see what is being talked about.  In order to successfully catch the attention of the public, you have to know what they're talking about and what they're interested in.

Because in the end, news is rarely about what the public needs to know, it's almost always about what people want to know.  Call it "infotainment" if you want, but it's the world we live in and it's not going to change.  If anything, the advent of the internet makes it easier for people to bypass what they see as dry and boring news and go directly to the sites that feed their desire for something interesting.

This is what you're competing with and if you pitch only stories that feed the need and ignore the want, you're going to struggle to raise the profile of your organization.

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