CHARLIE MITCHELL: Consumer habits changing faster than big media’s

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – How did you find out about the new pope? What about the pummelings central Mississippi has been taking from hailstorms?
If you’re like an increasing proportion of the world’s population, you didn’t get the initial information from a scheduled newscast or from a newspaper.
You got a nugget from “social media” and, if you were interested, sought to learn more either on the Internet, by watching a 30-minute, fixed format newscast or reading a newspaper.
Media evolution continues. The role of TV and newspapers is less to “break” stories these days and more to supplement. How effectively they do this predicts their success, perhaps their survival.
The first people outside the Sistine Chapel to hear about Pope Francis were those who “follow” the Vatican on Twitter. Enrolling to receive instant alerts on their phones is also how CNN, Fox and all the other news organizations got their information. The first papal tweet was at 12:33 p.m., Rome time. The networks then scurried into action, but for hundreds of thousands of viewers, they were repeating, not reporting.
Similarly, all over the central part of the state last week, residents were uploading pictures and video of hail to Facebook while the storm clouds were still roiling across the state.
Last week was also when the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism released the 2013 edition of its comprehensive State of the News Media report. Drawing any single conclusion from the report is impossible. It tracks “indicators.”
One distillation of the narratives, charts, tables and graphs, however, is that while there’s lots of angst in corporate offices about declining viewership of TV news and readership of big-city newspapers, the shift is not in response to less public interest.
If anything, people are more attuned than ever to what’s going on in the nation and world.
Witness that the New York Times, which long struggled to reach 1 million printed editions per day, added 600,000 paying customers when it started charging online readers last year. That translated to a 40 percent subscriber increase.
But there’s more to tell: Part of the evolution is that people can go straight to the source.
Here’s how it works: When the Roman Catholic church selected a new pope, the Vatican immediately posted his biography. When an NFL team picks a new coach, it can do the same.
What this does is give institutions of all types more control over their messages than ever. People (including reporters) who hear a tidbit of information – a new hospital, a new law, a coming flood – search for the source of the information.
A medical corporation’s website might tell a curious person everything he or she wants to know about an expansion. A complete explanation from the governor about why he signed a bill is just as available as a news service story about the same bill. River stages and forecasts are instantly available 24/7. People don’t wait for media reports. They can go straight to the scene of the action, as it were. And implicit in this is that institutions can limit information to what they choose to share.
The headline on the Pew report was that media companies are responding to the evolution by hiring likable personalities, offering cheerful banter and “lite” stories. TV especially is attempting to hold audiences by entertaining them more while informing them less. That’s not a workable approach because (1) entertainment is best left to entertainers and (2) every indication is that the public craves solid news and information from neutral, trustworthy sources as much, if not more, than ever.
What the mass media can do in response to being scooped left and right by social media – and what community papers have been doing all along – is to provide context and explanation. What do others who know the new pope have to say about him? What are the repair options or insurance implications of a hailstorm? Don’t tell people what happened, but what it means to them.
News organizations that are doing this effectively – and many are – will likely continue to prosper. Those who aren’t need to ponder why, exactly, they think people should tune in and be told stuff they already know.
The key and constant component is relevance. Be valuable to viewers and readers – or don’t be surprised when you are no longer part of their day.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.