News judgment with the audience in control

News values should tell us what captures audience eyeballs, not what scratches editors' itches. (Original elements from pixabay.com)

News values should tell us what captures audience eyeballs, not what scratches editors’ itches. (Original elements from pixabay.com)

In print newsrooms I’ve worked in, certain colleagues were acknowledged as having better or worse news judgment. The “news values” taught in journalism school weren’t referred to explicitly. News judgment was like charisma; you had it or you didn’t.

In digital newsrooms, there is temptation to swing the other way, reducing story decisions to consultation with a spreadsheet. Stuff about the pro football team gets lots of clicks? Give us more. You don’t need editors to decide; you just need numbers. There may be more concern about formats — listicles, videos, etc. — than content.

Neither approach satisfied me when I had to figure out how to teach journalism students. As I wrote in my last post, the lists of news values available were stuck in the past, focused more on why editors traditionally chose stories rather than on why the audience cared about them.

I also struggled with how to explain news values — which often seemed to be used to exclude (too far away, no big numbers, etc.) — in light of notion that great reporters can find stories anywhere. Which was it: Was news everywhere, but most journalists were too blind to see it? Or was news a rare commodity, hiding out among dull imitations?

The revelation for me was that “news” and “newsworthiness” were different concepts. “News values” were the connecting link. (I apologize if what follows seems obvious or common knowledge. I hadn’t thought about it this way before.)

I scrapped old saws about news being what someone doesn’t want to see published, or man bites dog. News is anything the audience doesn’t already know. That’s everywhere.

It’s not all equally important or useful, however, and journalists get to decide what news they report. We should not hand that role to algorithms and spreadsheets.

However, if a story lands on a computer screen and no one reads it or watches it, it doesn’t make a sound. That’s where news values come in. Once journalists decide what they want to report, news values can guide them to making newsworthy stories out of the chosen news.

Editors already work with reporters to hone and improve story ideas; we already talk about finding the best “angle.” Here’s why a revised set of news values is needed, though:

  • To some extent, news values have been used — in the classroom, if not the newsroom — to exclude. It’s efficient to reject stories out of hand because they’re too far from campus or about things that happened too long ago. I want to move closer to the “yes, and” approach of improv comedy: You never reject what your improv partners are doing; you build on it.
  • Even when we do try to hone story ideas, traditional news value lists give us little to work with. I quickly tired of saying “yes, but can you find someone on campus?”
  • Too many discussions seemed to treat the story idea, with its angle, as the smallest possible unit. I want to try asking students just to tell me something the audience doesn’t already know. Then we can use news values to figure out how to get the audience interested in knowing.
  • The relationship between newsworthiness and audience can be blurred when we consider just a few blunt labels. News values should emphasize that we can determine whether a story is newsworthy only if we know who the audience is.

Once I started thinking this way, a few things became apparent:

  • Short lists would be little help. The factors that make an audience interested are complex.
  • Many old news values were still relevant, but the list had to go beyond journalism into realms such as psychology and fiction.
  • The list would need two parts. Core values described elements that command audience attention on their own. Others were multipliers — unable to attract an audience on their own, but able to increase or decrease the strength of core values.

This is a work in progress. I meant to post my list shortly after the initial post, but when I pulled it up to prepare for fall quarter I started tweaking. I still am. What’s below is the short list. In future posts, I’ll explain them in detail.

Core values

Any one of these values, even if weak, can get an audience slightly interested.

Affinity and affiliation: Audience members can see themselves in the story because it involves a group they identify with.

Basic needs: Food, shelter, health, safety.

Competition: A central theme of the story is one side pitted against another with the outcome in doubt. For there to be true competition, the winner must be chosen either by subjective standards or by an outside arbitrator.

Follow-up: Follow-up to a significant event.

Mysteries: The mysteries are not simply things the audience didn’t know yet, but rather things that it would take some effort to discover.

Opinion confirmation: Stories that reinforce the audience’s opinions.

Personal profit and loss: The story explains how the audience can gain or lose money.

Prominence: A story about a celebrity – someone very familiar to the audience. In some circumstances, this value may apply to nonhuman or even nonliving things.

Quests: The story calls on ancient narrative elements. Quests must involve some struggle, the overcoming of obstacles.

Sorrow, anger and the warm fuzzies: Stories that will stir strong emotions. This value does not concern the emotions of those described in the story, but rather of the audience — the people you’re writing for, not the people you’re writing about.

Weird or funny: It is likely to make the audience laugh or make a funny face.

Multiplying values

These qualities won’t attract audiences on their own, but they can strengthen (or, in some cases, weaken) a story’s core values.

Action: A significant thrust of the story involves some way the audience can get involved and do good.

Big numbers: A central element of the story involves an unusually large (or unusually small) dimension.

Characters: One or more people in the story are fully fleshed. To qualify, these people must do more than offer a quote or be referred to; the audience must come to know them in human terms.

Closeness to home: A simple geographic measurement.

Completeness and closure: The story promises all essential information or the conclusion of a narrative.

Disagreement: Two or more sides are at odds over some issue. A baseball game isn’t a disagreement; both sides agree on the rules and what sport they’re playing.

How-tos: A significant element of the story involves instructions for a task that is important to the audience.

One plus one equals three: The story reveals a previously unrecognized pattern to events. The events may have each been too trivial to notice until the pattern was revealed. Alternatively, the events may have been individually significant, but the connection story reveals unknown links between them.

Rarity: The central focus of the story is something out of the ordinary.

Relevance and familiarity: The story involves something that is a part of the audience’s daily lives.

Timeliness: The central event of the story happened recently or is going to happen in the near future.

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