June 1, 2001

Balancing News Interest: A Great Juggling Act

by Andrew Kohut for Columbia Journalism Review

A big news story sells itself, but attracting and maintaining audiences is a juggling act in an era of peace and prosperity when dramatic news is scarce. The diverse interests of news consumers create an extraordinary challenge for journalists. In fact, that diversity is so great as measured in our news interest polls, it’s a wonder that anyone sits through an entire news broadcast or reads the paper front to back. Strong emphasis on one or a few news areas can turn off as many people as it attracts.

But these same audience surveys suggest there is a peril to news organizations’ tailoring their coverage to that cluster of subjects that poll well. Here’s what our polling finds with respect to the risks and rewards of focusing on what “turns on” today’s news consumer.

Big weather stories invariably outpoll all other subjects on our monthly news interest surveys. But when the sun is shining, four topics have unusual drawing power: crime, health, local news, and sports. Each attracts a big bloc of readers, viewers, and listeners from different demographic quarters.

Americans consistently say they follow crime news more closely than any general subject, but beware: interest in crime is falling with the crime rates. The percentage very closely following it fell from 41 percent in 1996 to 36 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 2000. Younger, less well-educated people, and African-Americans are the prime crime-news consumers.

Health news does about as well as crime in the polls with 29 percent saying they follow it very closely. Women fifty and older are heavier-than-average health-news consumers, but this subject is of considerable interest to almost all Americans, with the exception of men under forty.

Community news holds strong general interest for about one in four adults. Both men and women sixty and older are particularly drawn to news about people and events in their hometown. City dwellers and suburbanites are almost as interested in community news as are small-town people and rural audiences.

Sports ranks high because it is so dominant an interest among men under forty. While more women do sports these days, it still does not show up in their attentiveness to sports news. In fact, women under thirty are not notably more interested in sports pages and sportscasts than women sixty and older — a finding that may say more about the coverage than about their interest in sports.

The staples of serious news programs and publications — international, financial, government, and politics — each sparks strong news interest from fewer than one in five Americans. Gender, generation, and education make the difference for this material: college-educated men forty years and older have the most interest; less well-educated younger women have decidedly the least.

Religion and science/technology are of interest to a slightly larger pool of people than the classically “serious news subjects.” About one in five express strong interest in these two topics, but they are very different kinds of people: religion appeals most to older, less well-educated women. Science and technology attracts younger, well-educated males who have little interest in news about religion.

A similar push-pull is apparent in the audience segments attracted to entertainment versus culture and the arts. Entertainment attracts a younger but less well-educated segment of the news audience. Coverage of culture and the arts appeals to fewer people, and its audience is older, though better educated.

Looking at these numbers, it’s surprising that newspapers and broadcast news programs are not having even more trouble in stitching together a general news audience. So what’s the glue that bonds consumers to media that spend a lot of time or space on subjects that don’t especially interest them?

Our surveys suggest that enjoying the news for its own sake is the common denominator for news audiences. People who like “keeping up a lot” are the avid news consumers. This is true irrespective of specific news interests.

But there is a big “but” here. People who like keeping up with the news are strongly committed to serious news topics — politics, government, international news, and business. They are four to five times more likely to express strong interest in hard news than people who don’t enjoy staying current with the news. There is a much smaller gap on “soft news” between those who like to keep up and those who don’t.

This is one of the reasons why news content dictated by the most popular news subjects tends to drive away core audiences. Yes, there are more people interested in softer news than serious news, but they are not the avid, intense consumers who are the heart and soul of general news audiences.

Attracting news audiences these days is a balancing act. One must provide enough “serious news” to satisfy a core audience that is small in numbers, but also enough “back of the book” material to draw in the larger number of marginal news consumers who can make a real difference in the ratings and at the newsstand.

Appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of Columbia Journalism Review