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.
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