Thursday, August 13, 2009

Looking for News in the Refrigerator

Cold Cuts News

Looking inside other people’s refrigerators to learn about them? No, I don’t do that. Who does? Apparently is done by a significant number of people because it merited coverage in our local newspaper. No, that wasn’t the A-Section Page One story in the Austin American Statesman Wednesday, August 12, 2009, but it was Page One of “Food and Life”. You must be kidding, I thought. Yeah, I read, and I guess the goal was accomplished. The newspaper grabbed me and made me read the Addie Broyles story “What does your fridge say about you? Everything.”

Actually, it told me very little. Ms. Broyles did cite a chapter in a book entitled “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You” by University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Sam Gosling who apparently studies the contents of other people’s refrigerators.

In the spirit of openness, I’m posting our open refrigerator. Hmmm. There is milk, tortillas, leftovers, a plastic container of cantaloupe and other stuff. I’m not showing the “beverage/overflow” fridge in the garage. Suffice it to say it is stocked with 12 ounce cans and bottles including Coke Zero.

Then, I looked below the fold of the “Food and Life” section, just above the ad for Spec’s is another article, “A six-pack of Austin stores that make convenience a good thing” by Dina Guibudaldi. I actually agreed with a little of the list. I had to ask the question, however, is this news?

Have you read the little paperback book It’s Not News, It’s FARK/How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News, by Drew Curtis? Hardly a journalistic treatise, the book is an outgrowth of his web site, used by disc jockeys and who-knows-else daily. One of the favorite things media does when there is little else going on or there is little creativity in the room is to make lists. “Texas Monthly” seems to have a list for each month from the best barbeque, best burgers, to the best and worst legislators. Yes, we may get some information from these lists, but what are the criteria for these categories? Who sets the rules? Who judges?

Television listings, classified ads, and comic strips filled out the 12-pages of the American-Statesman D-Section. The back page was split between an ad and a story about a beer tour of San Antonio. Yes, San Antonio.
When in doubt, I apply my definitions of news to articles as sort of a test. The definition: Issues, events, and developments that interest or affect the greatest number of people in your audience on that day? Or, another test is the answer to the question, “Who cares?” If few people care, it’s probably not news. Further, I don’t care what’s in other people’s refrigerators. It’s none of my business. These definitions, I believe, apply to features as well as other news stories.

Anyway, while we have open refrigerators inside in the D section, it has always bothered me that many of the truly important stories of the day are on Pages 2 and 3 or deeper. Often these national and international stories merit only one paragraph. Wednesday’s A-Section was only ten pages with much of the space given to ads. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad that the newspaper is selling ads. I hope they sell lots, and lots, and lots of ads so that they can also provide readers with lots, and lots, and lots of news. Not just summaries.

Judging from the other media that I have seen and read, much has happened during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic African trip. A misunderstanding in translation resulted in an unfortunate snap response from Ms. Clinton, and that’s what got coverage while other important aspects of the trip are glossed over.

News organizations pay good money to find out what the audience wants. It is then the job of news managers to help create the stories that fit that image. Sometimes, however, news organizations must answer this grave question: Do we always give the people what they want, or do we give the citizens what they need. Granted, the Austin American-Statesman may not view itself as the daily record, leaving that to other national newspapers and media, but when I see more pages of newsprint given to open refrigerators, a list of the best convenience stores in town, TV listings, classified ads, and a beer tour of San Antonio than the important and even threatening hard news stories of the day from Iran, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere, questions of “news judgment” and priorities come to mind.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

Post Script: This week I’ve been assessing the topics and emphases of this medium, this blog newsmcnabb. I even considered whether I should continue writing. That question is answered with this post. I asked for comments and got them, scores of them. Most were quite gracious. A few weren’t. I’m digesting these thoughts, and I’ll share some later.


Anonymous said...


You've got your gripes with the paper, so do I.

Take today's Statesman, for example.

The 18 pages of Section A and Section B (metro & state) contain 10 local stories, most of which are small briefs; 15 state stories, most of which are briefs; and four spot news items, most of which are briefs. (The business section is incorporated in Section B, but for purposes of this brief analysis, I was looking only at Section A and the metro & state section.)

How about some solid, investigative reporting? How about some hard news that affects the Austin-area community, rather than a lot of briefs that contain information of minimal interest.

What the heck is the Statesman doing with its reporting staff?

B-Ray said...

I agree with you, Jim. The lines between news and entertainment are blurred, and our industry is more of a 'giving consumers what they want' rather than what they need.

I admit that I find it rather tedious to sift through the hard news of the day and it is quite easy to resort to lighter, soft news. But, I do it anyway, because I value information and access to it. News has never been an easy business and because most newsrooms are fighting to stay afloat, they can't afford to step on too many toes or lose too many readers/viewers/listeners. It's sad, you're right.

But on a 'softer' note, Jim, will you tell me what the author of that article might say about me regarding the contents my fridge? :)