Friday, July 9, 2010

Observation from an Infamous Night

In class, we continually have discussions about the business motives in the communications industry; media companies, advertising agencies and individual media participants. While we all desire more stories to be told or certain stories to have extended coverage, we constantly return to the classic adage, “if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”

Now, these conversations aren’t just based on the ivory tower of academia. In any MBA program, you will find yourself around professionals who are currently active or at least spent significant time in the working world. Conversations on theories and case studies tend to have a bit more realism because everyone brings their experiences to the fold, not just opinions. Because this is a media program, all of us are or have been in the industry in some fashion; sales, marketing, accounting, public relations, research, etc. We have a greater understanding of the business principles, even if we struggle to agree with methods.

So as two major stories across the nation were playing themselves out last night, we were having this conversation for the umpteenth time.

Photo Credit to the Associated Press

One of the underlying reasons, if not, THE most significant reason why entertainment vehicles – sports, movies and music, specifically – tend to take up so much bandwidth is that they are traveling road shows. These entertainers perform far beyond one city or region. In fact, the most talented individuals (well, in sports, that is since talent is fleeting elsewhere) perform across the nation and across the globe. They make their presence known in your city and if you wish, you can attend live, watch on television, listen on the radio, whatever.

Knowing this, media companies will flock to give these roaming shows as much coverage as the public demand warrants. There’s a vested financial interest from all parties that keeps the story going, for better or worse. The entertainment company pays not only for producing the product, but to promote it. The media outlets, ad agencies, representative firms and other communication professionals pay to connect themselves to the product. The fans pay to consume at least once; in-person, on TV, on DVD, etc.

Meanwhile, hard news stories of crime, complaints and criticism are so common in the local news that unless there is a truly sensational or tragic element to a certain story, it will never move beyond that specific region. Even then, because we are so overwhelmed with individual travails and concerns about local communities, these larger stories tend to get pushed to the wayside far quicker than merited. Why, you may ask?

Because there’s not enough money behind keeping them in the limelight.

Photo credit to Advance the Struggle

Fair or not, there’s not as much financial investment to cast a larger and more intense spotlight on a story like the Oscar Grant trial. This comes from all fronts; in the place of the entertainment company is the Grant family and supporters who don’t have the resources compared to, say, a ticked-off team owner. Unless it’s an election year and there are national races of note, media firms don’t see much, if any, return on investment in hard news. Most of all, consumers aren’t shelling out dollars to catch up on news these days; newspapers in decay, an orgy of free sources on the internet, shifting television viewing habits, etc.

What exasperates matters is that in this era of media, you would think that there’s an outlet for whatever tickles our fancy. Newspapers are still printing and TV stations are still broadcasting the news, but they’re building web presences in order to keep up with the times (and are scared as hell to not follow the trend). Online resources in blogs, full-fledged multimedia websites and message boards give voices to those who may have not spoken in the last days of unchallenged traditional media dominance. TV itself grew to previously unheard of heights as many of the major players built niche channels; not only creating new programs, but breathing life back into old shows in syndication.

Yet, in reality, that’s just not happening. Talk up sites like Deadspin and Drudge Report all you want, but the most popular media on the web comes from established media companies such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and ESPN. For whatever reason – money, lack of vision, undefined markets and/or sheer laziness – this revolution that we hoped for is far slower to come than we expected.

With the biggest brands dominating in all aspects of media, it’s only natural that the same stories they profit from are the same stories we consume over and over and over again.

We continually get upset when an entertainer’s exploits receive far more attention than a tragedy of someone a bit closer to you and me. Even with that, compared to musicians, actors and actresses, we get even angrier when it’s the exploits of a professional athlete; someone who is essentially told to just shut up and play at every turn. Yet, all of that anger is just that; anger.

Meanwhile, the reality of this era is that those greater tragedies always return to being local stories. This isn’t like the civil rights movement; the brutality crystallized in pictures and television was just the next level of the daily pains of millions. It was easier for people to attach themselves to those tribulations because it wasn’t that difficult to imagine being victimized in the same manner. In this era, we’ve become so fragmented that it’s going to take the most extreme tragedy – another successful terrorist attack, perhaps? – for a nation to take notice.

As a New Yorker, I’m reminded of how the world outside of the Boroughs forgot about Abner Louima, Patrick Dorismond, Amadou Diallo or Sean Bell. It’s not because people didn’t care, but it was because real life isn’t built like entertainment.

There’s no traveling road show for tragedy.

I ask this question without being jaded, rhetorical and bitter. In fact, I’m genuinely interested in your answers: what are we going to do about it?


Mia said...

Great post! Most of America tuned in for the LeBron announcement; most tuned out the Oscar Grant story with the same quickness. I believe that the critical difference between the pull of the entertaining v. that of 'round-the-way stories lies in the actual accountability. Fans and gawkers are many steps removed from an NBA decision, whereas, citizens and neighbors could have a voice. That mere possibility makes it easier to live in the make-believe, manufactured fun world. We do, as a collective, have the opportunity to speak out and have influence. It just doesn't feel as good as the detached watcher mode - nor should it. We can do both; it's not necessary to choose. We can enjoy the drama that is LeBron James and speak out against a travesty that is the story of Oscar Grant with equal fervor. Isn't that one of the freedoms we just celebrated a few days ago?

Jason Clinkscales said...

Want to send this along the readers' way. I haven't finished reading it, but I hope it speaks to a point I was trying to make about the lack of support for hard news in this era of specialized media.