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From the Newsroom: Can’t spell depressing without press

Like most managers, I try to keep up on the news in my industry. Because journalism is in a state of flux (that’s the polite way to say newspapers are struggling financially) there is quite a lot of industry news.

An item from Harvard’s Nieman Lab caught my eye this week. In a report, Joshua Benton explores why some people avoid the news. Is it a matter of distrust, or more about the news constantly being depressing? The answer is both, but Benton suggests it is more about the latter than the former.

Benton cites the latest edition of the Digital News Report, which found that in 2017, 29 percent of those surveyed worldwide said they “often or sometimes avoid the news,” including 38 percent of Americans. By 2019, those numbers had increased to 32 percent worldwide and 41 percent in the U.S.

Why do people avoid news? In the 2017 survey, the leading causes for Americans were: “It can have a negative effect on my mood” (57 percent) and “I can’t rely on news to be true” (35 percent).

“There is never anything positive in it. It’s always negative, and I’m not a negative person — I hate hearing or reading a paper that constantly has nothing but bad reports in it,” wrote one respondent.

I get it. And increasingly, I think that reporters and editors are starting to get it. But it will take some changing habits, by both journalists and consumers, to create a new paradigm.

When I went to journalism school, I was taught that news is what is unusual. If a state audit finds Vancouver’s city finances are in order, that’s not news. But if an audit finds malfeasance, we’ll write a front-page story.

But that does lead to a lot of negative news being reported, particularly nationally and internationally. I looked at Monday’s A section headlines in The Columbian: nine negative stories, five I considered neutral and one positive. The C section, home of local news, was better: six positives, one negative and six neutrals.

So we do present the bad stuff. But are there better ways to do it? The Solutions Journalism Network, for example, is actively trying to promote its method of identifying a problem, but in the same story, identifying a solution to the problem. We recently had some staff training on this.

Say, for example, we are writing about affordable housing. Would living in an RV be a potential solution? Columbian reporter Patty Hastings looked into that and literally found some happy campers but also identified several obstacles to making this a larger practice. I thought this was a solutions-oriented story. We need to do more of these types of stories.

I’m going to blame consumers a little bit, too. We know they love a good bad-news story. That’s why local television — where most Americans say they get their news — is so reliant on crime news. We’ve all heard the TV news cliche, “If it bleeds, it leads,” but there’s a reason. Those stories get the highest viewership and attract the largest audience, leading to the strongest ratings, the highest TV commercial prices, and, at least in theory, the most profit for the broadcasters.

I would say The Columbian writes more about schools, sports and local government than about crime news, but certainly, we want a large audience, too. Through May 15 of this year, half of the 10 most-viewed stories on involved police activity. The top story of the year, so far, is from Feb. 20: “Teen shot by Vancouver police was from Micronesia.”

The two top nonpolice stories of the year thus far were about Cinetopia’s closing and Patty Hastings’s “solutions” story about the people living in their RVs.

So should we give people what they say they want, or what they seem to watch and read? I think we need to look for chances to feature the positive, even as we report the negative.


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