It's quite rational to be less interested in serious newsby Godfrey Hodgson / August 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
This should be a golden age for news. Digital technology has put prodigious tools into the newsroom. People in the west are better educated and travelled than ever before. The only snag is that one by one, and then million by million, the audience for news-especially international news-is drifting away. Newspaper readership is declining in Britain, a fact concealed at the top of the market by a slight shift from tabloids to broadsheets; in the US it is falling more sharply. Within newspapers “serious” news, rather than comment, features or sport, seems least attractive to readers.
It is the same with television audiences. In the US, the combined audience of the Big Three networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) has fallen from over 90 per cent in 1976 to less than 60 per cent in 1996. As recently as 1970, international news took up 45 per cent of the time on US network news. In 1995-the last time anyone counted-it was under 14 per cent and is probably under 10 per cent today, except during bursts of international concern such as the Gulf war. But in Britain neither newspapers nor television reported an increase in audience during the Kosovo conflict, despite huge resources committed and the dramatic, instantaneous coverage of events.
Outside the US, CNN is na?vely imagined to represent a triumphant new wave of classical television journalism. But it is lucky to get 100,000 viewers for its news at any one time. A CNN executive confided to me recently that the station would be doing much more health and lifestyle journalism, less and less classic news. In Britain, the number of television news outlets has increased by 800 per cent in the last ten years, while the audience for news has fallen by 20 per cent.
Faced with this sales resistance, no wonder the managers of the news business are sometimes tempted to turn cartwheels, swallow fire and hire topless female news anchors. But the punters are not idiots. Viewers are, by measurable standards, better informed and more sophisticated than the audiences of the 1950s or 1960s. There are solid historical reasons why readers are less interested in news.
For the past decade, we have been living after the end of what Eric Hobsbawm has called, “the short 20th century.” That period had been marked by a “grand narrative” of world wars and their consequences. In 1914, almost by accident, the international diplomatic system which had prevented European (though not colonial) wars for a century broke down. The war eventually involved, directly or indirectly, almost the whole world: 3m Americans travelled to Europe to fight; and more than 1m Indian soldiers fought in the British army.
Indirectly, the war felled the two great colonial empires of Britain and France. Directly, it destroyed four other empires: Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. The combination of communist ambitions and economic crisis led to the rise of fascism. Fascism led to the second world war. That war ended with the rivalry, between the US and its allies on the one side, and the Soviet Union and its satellites on the other, which we call the cold war. And when first the US, then the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons, that meant a serious risk of nuclear war. So from 1914 until 1989, or until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, the developed world-and much of the developing world, too-moved through a sequence of events which literally meant life or death for its inhabitants. Everybody with access to a newspaper, a radio or a television set-not just the elites which had been the main consumers of news-focused intently on a sequence of vital questions. Will there be war? Will we win? Will I, or my children, survive? Will there be a revolution? Will I lose my job? Will we all be incinerated?
The point is that the volume of dramatic or horrifying news has not dried up, but the perspective of the readers and viewers who constitute the market for news has been changing. This is particularly true in the US, Britain and western Europe, which supply the main markets for the international news system. Readers and viewers in developed countries think they are at peace. They understand that when people say “Europe is at war,” because Nato planes are bombing Bosnia or Kosovo, it is not true in the sense in which Europe was at war in 1914-18 or 1939-45.
These viewers and readers are behaving in a perfectly rational way. From 1914 to 1991 international news was frightening. It could kill you. Now people are not afraid that a new war is going to affect them. Its consequences will be borne by foreigners with ragged clothes or by a few professional soldiers.
In the US and Britain the only publications which think it is worth spending the large sums of money needed to stay in the business of international news are those which have a business readership. The most successful international news agency, Reuters, is the one which most energetically dedicates itself to serving an international business audience-people who need to know whether the Thai baht is going to be devalued or if North Korea is going to acquire a nuclear bomb. The only big international news organisation which does not target business is the BBC.
The end of grand narrative means the death not of news in general, but of a certain kind of news about high politics-domestic and international. British politicians rage against the abolition of daily parliamentary reports. But most people have long since stopped paying attention to what is said in parliament, except on special occasions. To say that people are no longer interested in high politics does not mean that they have lost all interest in public affairs. People worry, more than ever, about disease, global warming and so on.
For 75 years, people in the western world were afraid of war. Now they are afraid of other things. They are afraid of cancer, strokes, Aids, incompetent surgeons, GM food. They fret about being ugly and whether their sex life is as good as it could be.
The media as a business can benefit from this shift in emphasis, partly because lifestyle journalism and even science journalism are relatively cheap compared to maintaining foreign news bureaux. This is one reason why many media organisations are more profitable than they used to be, despite falling audiences. (Another reason is that newspaper owners are less motivated by non-economic motives.)
The end of grand narrative and the decline of international news does not mean that the media is becoming a business like any other. It will still function as the central nervous system of our complex societies, and that gives it great power (however hard to define). Of course it is desirable that people in rich societies should understand something of what is happening in the wider world. But there is no point bemoaning the dumbing down of news when the grand narrative that kept people interested in the bigger picture is over.