In an era when attracting advertisers and pumping up the bottom line has become the driving force for most television networks, news programming has gone soft. That’s according to James Hamilton, Ph.D., assistant professor of public policy, economics and political science at Duke University, who said hard news programming has taken a back seat to softer, human-interest news that research has shown appeals to a broader audience.
Hamilton discussed this trend during a Fordham Media Research Luncheon lecture titled “The Economics of News” on Oct. 28 on the Lincoln Center campus.
In his book, All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information Into News (Princeton University Press, 2004), Hamilton traces the economic influence on news back to the development of the printing press. According to Hamilton, once newspapers were easily mass produced, partisan papers became almost obsolete because they were designed to reach a limited audience. Newspapers began to declare themselves as independent publications in an effort to reach a larger audience.
“Objectivity is a commercial product, not a notion of morality or search of the truth,” said Hamilton.
Today, with the rise of cable television, that strategy has flipped. The profit-maximizing tactic on cable news is “counter-programming,” meaning news producers create demand by reporting a story from a particular angle. An example of this is The O’Reilly Factor, which is the number-one rated cable news show in primetime. Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News offers viewers a conservative slant to the news, said Hamilton, not seen on the other cable news programs that share the same time slot. Fox News theoretically attracts most of the conservative viewers, while the other cable news programs compete for the liberal audience.
Well-known anchors like O’Reilly are important to cable-news programs and their sponsors, because they attract a consistent fan base, usually of a particular demographic, that tunes in as much to see O’Reilly as to be informed on the day’s news.
“News is new every day, but if something is the same it allows [the network] to predict the type of viewer that they will get,” said Hamilton. “In the world of 70 channels, you are valuable if you are well known; using personalities is a great way [for the networks] to create a brand.”
Like national news, local news programming is influenced by demographics. In researching his book, Hamilton found that local news programs in markets with a high subscription rate to Time magazine tended to feature more hard news stories (politics, law, etc.). On the other hand, markets with a high subscription rate to People magazine tended to produce more soft news (human interest and entertainment stories). In addition, Hamilton found that markets where the television show Cops had high ratings tended to have local news broadcasts featuring more crime stories.
Hamilton also believes the Internet is an important medium for the news, especially for residents of remote areas or local markets dominated by soft news. The Internet has made hard news sources such as The New York Times and The Washington Post available all over the country; and as residents of remote areas find national news elsewhere, local news becomes more focused on local issues.
Hamilton’s lecture was part of the Media Research Luncheon Series, sponsored by the Fordham Center for Communication at the Fordham Schools of Business.