As we slogged through the morass of tepid news stories today I had pause to ponder on the nature of what we consider news. Too often it seems that we view stories as fodder to fill a half hour rather than worrying too much about the quality or even, heaven help us, the freshness of stories. This phenomenon is especially acute on weekends when our newsroom is pressed for staff and the stories available are not what I would politely call – earthshaking.
Even at the best of times in a small country such as this where most stations run on shoestring budgets the news is usually 80% based on press conferences and what government is ostensibly doing. Because of the constraints and the rather tricky libel and slander laws these stories usually are what passes for news. In a larger, more developed country there is the chance to do investigative pieces, hurl innuendoes around with gay abandon and generally find a wider palette with which to work but here we are rather stuck within a fairly rigid framework. This is not the happiest state and we certainly try to put in the odd bit about HIV or other topical subjects but there are only so many around. I would also suggest that the in-depth sort of look at a subject is generally not what the public wants. Based on newspaper sales and general feedback it would seem viewers want who was killed, who is heading to jail and what politician is in the doghouse.
If we look at the recent attempts by government/Caribbean Airlines to purchase a private jet which by all accounts will cost a ton of money and be primarily used for the benefit of the emperor apparent the limitations of our abilities as an industry become painfully clear. The reports in all media are primarily based on what the government/CA says and what the opposition says. Government speaks of the matter almost exclusively on on official platforms and any attempts to ask pertinent questions about the cost/benefit analysis of the purchase are brushed off as being “confidential” business matters. The fact that the purchase is costing taxpayers a figure North of $400 million plus we still have to pay to book the silly thing are mere piffles apparently. The latest news indicates the deal with Bombardier may be scrapped in favour of leasing a jet..who knows what will go on with that deal? There is no point in even discussing the strange explanation that we were paying $10 million US more for the jet because someone else wanted it – sort of like a Wii on eBay at Xmas time I guess. Apparently with the US economy in a downhill slalom there are still dedicated buyers who will pay millions more for a jet from what is , it seems, the only executive jet manufacturer on the planet ( it seems Learjets and Gulfstreams are passe).
Back to the news in general. When filling 30 minutes of news time it is sometimes a matter of just finding things to supplement the actual news that rears its head on that day. Generally speaking the important stories go in the bit before the first commercial that we call the “first section” and the other “stuff” goes after the break and before the regional news. Sometimes, a really good story ends up in the swampy ground of the second section because of editing time constraints or waiting for a last minute addition to the story but generally the section is populated by sloppy seconds. These can be ho-hum stories that are not really of any great import or even leftover stories that weren’t able to be aired the day before or even days before. Is this news? Probably not but the exigencies of filling air time can lead us to adopt the attitude that if some of our viewers never saw it before it is probably news to them.
Now from a marketing point of view it would make sense to pepper the duration of the newscast with hot stories to keep the viewers tuned in. This would lead to the US style of saying “ coming up later in the newscast ..a baby killer could be in your neighbourhood..stay tuned” but sadly this doesn’t work too well here. It might work if you are 100% sure nobody else has the story but otherwise you will be scooped by the other news houses who place the same story higher in the news thus making you look stupid for placing it at the end of the second section to keep viewers glued.
I could talk of how we choose the order of stories but that is material for another blog entry.