Webinar

Selective News Avoidance

Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Reuters/Frank Polich
Speakers

Editorials Editor, Tulsa World

Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute Study of Journalism

Introductory Remarks

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Host

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Benjamin Toff, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, discusses his research on the increasingly complex relationship with traditional news media that many people experience today. Ginnie Graham, editorials editor at Tulsa World, discusses her experience reporting on news avoidance and how this trend can affect local communities. The host for the webinar is Carla Anne Robbins, senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times. 

TRANSCRIPT

FASKIANOS: I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution focusing on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. And, as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics. And our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. We’re delighted to have participants, over sixty, coming to join us today from twenty-four states and U.S. territories. Again, this discussion is on the record. And we will post a video and transcript on our website after the fact at CFR.org/journalists.

We are pleased to have Ginnie Graham, Benjamin Toff, and Carla Anne Robbins with us today to discuss selective news avoidance. I will give you highlights from their bios.

Ginnie Graham is the editorials editor at Tulsa World. She has over thirty years of experience as a journalist and writer in Oklahoma. Her work focuses on social justice, equity, education, and health issues around children, youth, and families. And she recently published an article about news avoidance in local communities and its implications for democracy, entitled “Extremism Thrives on People Not Checking Out the Daily Headlines.”

Benjamin Toff is a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where he leads the Trust in News Project. He is also an assistant professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. And among his projects with the Reuters Institute, Dr. Toff is an in-depth examination of news avoidance and infrequent news use among audiences in the U.K. and elsewhere.

And finally, Carla Anne Robbins is our host. She is a senior fellow at CFR. She is also the faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. And she is the cohost of CFR’s podcast The World Next Week, which I commend to all of you.

So thank you all for being with us today. I’m going to turn it over to Carla to have the conversation with our distinguished panel. And then we’re going to go to all of you for your questions, comments. And, as a reminder, we like to use this as a way to share best practices. So please ask questions. You can either raise your hand or type them in the Q&A box. With that, Carla, over to you.

ROBBINS: Thanks so much, Irina. And thank you so much, Ginnie and Ben, if I can call you by your first name. That’s great. The only person who ever called me doctor was my mother—(laughter)—who made me finish my Ph.D. before she let me become a journalist. So what can I tell you? It was a great fallback.

So, Ben, can we start with you and this report that you just worked on? I actually never even heard the term “news avoidance,” although for someone who spent thirty years of my career in journalism, I sort of can relate to it right now. I mean, not that I’m not a total news junkie, but it’s pretty grim out there. So can you talk about what you found, particularly about the United States, because this is a local journalists group?

TOFF: Sure. So yeah. So this is actually something I started researching back in 2017. Actually, no, 2016. I was, at the time, a postdoc at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, which does a big annual survey of news audiences around the world. And one of the things that they had been noticing is they typically had screened out people who consume news less than once a month from their surveys each year. This is the digital news report that they publish each year. And they didn’t really know anything about them.

And so that one of the things I started doing back then was just talking to people in that category to better understand what their lives were like, how they related to news. And the Reuters Institute started measuring what we’ve now started calling selective news avoidance in their surveys starting in 2017, and now, most recently, this year. And there has been this kind of steady increase in the percentage of people who are in this category, who say that they are actively avoiding news. And so the research I’ve done over time has been a mix of survey data analysis, but also a lot of in-depth conversations with people in this category in the U.K., in Spain, as well as in the U.S.

And so what’s—it’s a very complicated set of different kind of intersecting phenomenon in terms of the way people think about news in their lives. So there isn’t really just sort of one kind of news avoider. But it does tend to be people who are younger, people who are less educated, people who are less interested in politics. And in the U.S., it also tends to be more frequent among people on the—on the right, conservative ideologically.

And then the other big piece of it has to do with technology. And a lot of—particularly that measure of selective news avoidance—a lot of people were expressing a kind of feeling like they’re inundated by information at all times, and so they’re actually needing to actively screen it out in a way that was really quite different from, if you think about, you know, twenty, thirty years ago, the media environment that we were living in. You made much more of a sort of conscious choice to seek out news when you wanted to consume it.

And so a lot of that percentage that of what we’re seeing over time of more and more people saying that they’re avoiding news, some of that is not necessarily to be super concerned about. A lot of those people are actually consuming a lot of news, but they’re just expressing a kind of frustration about the amount of news that they’re seeing, or the way that they have to kind of sift through news to kind of get what they want.

ROBBINS: So I saw some numbers. And is it—was it 38 percent of Americans say they sometimes or often avoid news, including—of that, what, 41 percent of women and 34 percent of men? Is that the right—the right number? And that the highest percentage that you’ve seen over time? Because you’ve been doing this for a while.

TOFF: Yeah. So in the survey data, 38 percent is the percent over the average across all the countries in the Digital News Report in 2022. The U.S. is slightly higher, 42 percent. And this is people who say that they actively avoid news sometimes or often. And that’s up from 38 percent in 2017 in the U.S. Brazil has actually seen the largest increase, from 27 percent back in 2017 to now 54 percent of people either often or sometimes actively avoiding news. And, yeah, gender is one of the other kind of divides you see across a lot of countries, where it’s slightly higher among women than men.

ROBBINS: And, Ginnie—and I want to come back, Ben, also to talk about what stories and what people are talking, because I know you do focus groups or narratives. Ginnie, you wrote about this. And you also—you have a pretty close relationship with your community, not just covering it but you also have this advisory board. You know, obviously, your advisory board cares about the newspaper or they wouldn’t be involved in the advisory board. What are you hearing from people about—you know, and doesn’t seem that there’s a much higher percentage of people who are just turning off from the news?

GRAHAM: Yes. And what prompted me to write the editorial was that there was a situation in Oklahoma where our state superintendent and state school board was going to take over the Tulsa School District. There was a threat to do that. And that’s a big move. It’s the largest district in the state. These are sort of on the right wing of politics, politicians that were wanting to do this. And we’ve been covering it for about six months. Came down to the day of the vote, and my phone was about to melt down because everyone in my bubble, like, woke up that day and they were wanting me to, like, what’s happening? What happened here? And these are people who, you know, with—how do you sum up in, you know, text messages, what we’ve been reporting for six months? And that was just sort of an example of sort of what I think a lot of journalists deal with.

The other reporters in the meeting had the same thing. For whatever reason, the community had been avoiding this very—in avoiding news, they didn’t know about this big thing that was happening until it was almost too late. And I’d also been seeing this pop up in our editorial board meetings with other officials and other leaders in the community. Like all editorial boards, you know, periodically the mayor will come in or state lawmakers or, you know, CEOs of companies. And it became pretty obvious some of them were not reading news, were not up to date on what had been reported.

And at one point, I remember this in the last election, a candidate who was in pretty high office very upset that we hadn’t been covering all the dark money. Why aren’t you covering dark money? We had written in the last—the prior two weeks something like eight stories on dark money coming in—and one of them was in his campaign, in his race. And so we were seeing these trends of things happening. And you can tell the difference of who does and who doesn’t keep up with the local or state or national news, just because of what they know and don’t know. And it’s a difference of their being told what’s being reported rather than just knowing for themselves. And in thinking about that, there are real consequences to that.

You know, when you don’t know who’s running for the school board, right now we have a lot of extreme candidates running. And so for people—when you think of 42 percent of Americans choose not to know news, that’s huge. And so that allows people who may not have, you know, the best motives to come in. And that’s where my headline came from, was extremism thrives when people don’t know what’s going on. Because I’m seeing that play out in real time right now.

ROBBINS: And it was a really good piece, and we’ve just shared it in the chat. So, Ben, your study has a lot of different reasons. I want to get into them. But in part, it talked about particular stories that turned people off. And can we start with that? Are people identifying—you know, what is it that they’re identifying that they don’t want to read about? Or when they say, when I read about it, it makes me not want to keep reading?

TOFF: Yeah. I mean, it’s just when you really talk to people about, you know, their news habits and why they’re making the choices they are, there’s kind of two different sets of responses that people will give you. Some of them will actually say, it’s not really about the news. It’s about me. Not me, but themselves. (Laughs.) They’ll talk about—you know, they’ll say that they’re not a news person, they’ll say it’s just never been part of the personality. Many of them will point to things that are very stressful or demanding circumstances in their lives. You know, they may be raising three kids, taking care of an aging parent, they got a lot of stuff going on. And so there is, I think, a very strong element of this that is, you know, about recognizing where people are and what they’re dealing with their lives.

The other piece of it, though, you do hear people saying it is not really about me, but it’s about the news. And there, a lot of it, it tends to be a feeling like news is too much doom and gloom, too much negativity. It creates too much anxiety. A lot of—particularly in the U.S.—a lot of people feeling like they can’t trust it because they feel like it’s—they have these kind of ideas about what journalists do that is kind of motivated by ideological agendas. And then there’s a lot of people who are in the category who their biggest complaint is that it’s just difficult to make sense of it. The news is tedious or boring, or that they aren’t making the connections between what’s being covered and why it’s relevant to their lives. And they’d rather focus on things that are kind of more close to home, that are easier to make those connections.

And I think for many of the journalists on this call, probably you’re feeling like, no those—it’s so relevant to things in their lives. But the connection there is sometimes implicit and not drawn out in a way that I think a lot of people who are not particularly engaged with news, they’re not following it day to day. And so it’s just very hard to kind of dive in in the middle of a story and be able to make sense of it. And given everything else in their lives. They’re looking for a way to not necessarily spend an hour going through it, but they do just want kind of the basic highlights and why this matters.

ROBBINS: Ginnie, do you find that—I mean, the dark money story is the sort of thing that you, like, want to kill yourself after you—(laughter)—written all this—

GRAHAM: Is like you spend all this time—you spend all this time on stories, and then you’re, like, is anyone reading this? (Laughs.) But, you know, it’s always been—you know, I’ve been doing it for thirty years. And that it’s interesting phenomena of people saying it’s all bad news. I think that’s what people remember. Because at one point, I went back and pulled—because it was a school official was saying all we do is cover bad news out of the school. That’s all you do. So I went back to look at all the stories for a year that had been written about that school. And at least three-fourths would be what you would call, like, features—good news type stories. But all they could remember are the things that—it’s like you remember when you have the flat tire. You don’t remember all the times your car ran well. So I think that’s an interesting phenomena because I kind of wonder if that’s something about our human psychology that works on us, because we do write good news stories. You know, things going well and right and what we can—but those aren’t the things people remember.

The other thing that—I got into your research, which I really found helpful and fascinating—to try to make sense of what I was seeing locally, that this is a global and national issue, that cost comes up a lot. That were too expensive. And I always get a kick out of someone telling me it’s too expensive, as we’re sitting at Starbucks and, you know, our digital subscription’s, like, you know, $4 a month. But there is a real sense of news is too expensive. And though what I can’t find is any agreement on, OK, well, if this traditional model doesn’t work, who should pay for news? If we don’t want—they don’t want government paying for news. People don’t want nonprofits or foundations paying for news, and advertisers is a corporate sellout. So there’s no real consensus of who should pay for news, but just news should be free. So that’s another thing that I’m hearing from people who don’t keep up with with the headlines is, you know, it’s a lot to take in, and I don’t have time, and it costs a lot. And I thought it would be bias popping up a lot, but that’s not necessarily what I’m hearing from people.

ROBBINS: So cost was one of the things on on the list in your study. And I have to have full disclosure here, I sat on the committee that made the decision to go pay at the Times, in the fervent belief that people had always paid for newspapers. This is just—but there was this sort of odd, you know, the internet must be free phase. And, of course, there would be no New York Times or any other newspaper in American if people didn’t have to pay for subscriptions. But for another day, but everyone here knows this. Can we talk about some of the causes here?

I mean, on your list there’s a repetitive agenda, the news is a bummer. you know, they’re overwhelmed by news, there is the untrustworthy factor, of course, if you look at, like, the Edelman Trust Barometer and all these other things, nobody’s trustworthy these days. Too hard to understand. Can you sort of talk about what—having worked on this, Ben, for a while, and Ginnie as well, what do you think are the—are the real reasons versus the ones that people present because they then have to justify why they’re not—(laughs)—why they’re not engaging with the news?

TOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, as a social scientist, I try not to kind of categorize them as real or unreal if—what people are telling us is their reasons. But I do think, you know, you’re right. There are a lot of very intertwined factors here. And I think that for if you—I think to really put yourself in the perspective of a lot of people who are in this category, it’s a kind of lack of connection to individual news organization. So a lot of people’s perceptions of news are about the kind of ideas they hold about news and journalism in general, not necessarily specifically your organization. And so their perception of like negativity in local news, it could be very much driven by what’s on the local TV affiliate, regardless of what’s in the newspaper.

And, you know, for people who are less and less likely to have a kind of regular habit around consuming news in the way that people once had much stronger habits around, there’s kind of a more impressionistic relationship that people have with news that that makes it very hard to kind of change those attitudes. But I think that’s fueling a lot of people’s perceptions about what this product is, and along with the cost. So, yeah, it’s not a huge cost, but they’re thinking in terms of, like, relative to what they feel like they’re getting from it. And a lot of people have this perception, rightly or wrongly, I think often wrongly, but they have a perception that there isn’t a lot of difference between all the different sources of news that are out there. And so they feel like, you know, if I don’t get it from this particular organization, I’ll just Google it and see the headline somewhere else.

And so there—you know, there are real differences in terms of what’s actually being reported and who’s putting the resources into actually gathering the news. But for a lot of users, particularly those who are really disengaged, they aren’t necessarily thinking about it in those terms. They’re thinking about, like, why would I pay for it—why would I pay for this product, when I feel like I can get all the other information I want that’s actually relevant to me from all these other sources.

ROBBINS: So, but Ginnie, I mean, that raises some really interesting questions, because I could see people feeling—and I’m always saying to my students—I teach a course on media and politics—I’m saying to my students, you know, media is a plural word. Don’t talk to me about the media. But even my students, who self-select to take a course about media and politics, start out saying, well, you know, you in the media, and—

GRAHAM: Right, you know, I do—as a matter of fact, I just got some complaints. I mean, as the editorials editor, in the opinion section I get the complaints. But I’m finding that I get more and more complaints about stuff that is on TV, or it’s on—I was trying forever to find this one story this one gentleman was complaining about. Well, come to find out, he had heard it on, like, NBC. Because I thought maybe it was an AP story. We hadn’t run anything on it. And so there is maybe that because there is so much out there, people, I think, have a hard time parceling out where they’re getting it. And it’s that idea of what is your source, that we’re so used to asking, what’s your source? But I don’t think the general public necessarily thinks about it. You know, they see a story, they think it’s out there, and everyone’s covered it.

And so for us at the local level, because I am not covering. I’m in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We’re spending our time covering the state capitol, our city councils. We don’t cover President Biden. I’m not at Congress. We cover our congressional delegation. And so I always kind of, from my end of things, come back to say: We’re your local newspaper. If you want to find out why your tax rates are going up, you really need to read us because, you know, Fox News isn’t going to cover that. And that’s on our end as local journalists in America trying to connect with our audiences to say, you can’t get this anywhere else. No one else is sitting in on the Tulsa County Commission meeting that’s going to be determining jail policy.

So to a certain degree, we have to sort of make that connection with our populations. And where I kind of see, you know, you kind of talk about self-selection. There’s so much national news out there that my concern, where I live, is the lack of local news in some communities that don’t have a newspaper. They’re in rural Oklahoma. All they have are the national channels. And so there is a disconnect somewhat there that when we talk about just journalism overall I’m concerned about the lack of connection of what’s happening at the local levels to our local populations. Because that whole idea of media, it’s not coming—it’s coming from everything from Fox News to MSNBC, to all of that. So and I think that sometimes that is overwhelming, and they’ll just tune it out. And then they’re tuning out everything.

ROBBINS: So to go back to the—and I do want to get to—talk a little bit about ways to fix this. And I also know that Ben has to leave in twenty-two minutes. So we have limited time today, and I want to turn it over to the group. But just to look at, if you were going to put sort of an order on this, I suppose, you based on what people say is the most important, how much of this is that we live in really grim times and the news itself is just really grim? Accurate news is grim. I mean, we’ve got wars going on. We’re just coming out of this pandemic. People’s economic situation isn’t great. You’ve got the polarization in the country. And that’s—a lot of this stuff is global. How much of it is the fact that accurate reporting is talking about—it’s not that just, you know, if it bleeds, it leads. It’s just that it’s accurate. It’s true. And how much of this is more of a reflection of political polarization and this is one more institution that people don’t trust? I mean, Ben, do you have a sort of sense of that? Is it content or is it institutional, I suppose, is what I’m asking.

TOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s both, and it’s also—I think there’s a third piece of it that has to do with kind of the growing—and this is one of the things that technology has really afforded—which is, you know, it’s easier—there more and more voices, more and more places for people to express themselves. And I think in many ways, there’s a lot of positives that come from that in terms of pushing news media to be more representative of the communities they’re trying to serve and to incorporate more of those voices. But it also means there’s a lot more disagreement about kind of what is the truth on any given matter, which makes it that much harder for people to navigate the media environment at the same time.

So it’s all I think it’s all these things at once, which, you know, does pose—(laughs)—a very complicated series of challenges. I think if I had to point to one thing in particular to my mind that’s unique, because of course there’s always been really negative, complicated, depressing moments in history. I think one of the things that’s really kind of at the core of this is the changing habits that people have around the ways that they use media, and they find information. And that’s, you know, tied to the kind of longer trend of the internet. But I think at the center of it is kind of people’s daily connection to individual news organizations has really frayed, because they’re just not consuming in the same ways that they once were.

ROBBINS: So part of it is just exhaustion, because there’s just this firehose of information coming at them and they’re scrolling their phones all the time, and there’s just information blaring at them all the time. And so the notion that there is—carefully curated news out there, it’s just seen as one more thing blaring at them?

TOFF: Yeah, it’s combined, though, with this attitude I think a lot of people have that the smart way to respond to that environment is to be to avoid it, to not be taken in and be manipulated. And so they feel like to actually be a good citizen, I need to be resistant to all this information I’m seeing. Rather than, I think, for those of us who do consume a lot of news, we have a sense of, like, which ones we can trust, which organizations are doing things differently than others. And we kind of come to it with a sense of how to—how to navigate it, which I think can be really empowering. But for a lot of people who are distrusting or avoiding news, they see that as naïve, that those of us who have organizations that we do trust.

ROBBINS: So, Ginnie, you advantage of people know you. You’ve been there for—people know your paper, you’re in a smaller community than New York. And they know you. You’re the editorial page editor of this—of this paper. And it’s been almost an act of faith that people trust local newspapers more than they trust national newspapers. You’ve seen this. You guys must be sitting around talking about how to deal with it. I mean—

GRAHAM: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would say that it’s not—I don’t think it’s the, the news itself, because we’ve been—our country has faced a lot of tragedies. And we’ve—I don’t think it’s that. I think that there is—and we did start seeing it, you know, under President Trump’s, you know, leadership. Because, I mean, he had two rallies here, remember, in Tulsa. And I just remember, we had a political reporter who’d been covering politics for decades, you know, being pointed at and saying: That’s the enemy. And then people we knew, you know, people that we covered their high school football games and their theater programs, you know, they’re yelling at us. And it was a weird theater to be in.

And so there has been this sort of trickle down distrust that, you know, this was a national—I mean, it was the weirdest thing we’ve ever been involved in, because you really felt like I’m in a theater production and I didn’t know it, you know? (Laughs.) We were like, OK, these same people would turn around the next week and want us to cover something else. But for that moment, they didn’t trust the media, they didn’t like us, and because they were told that’s the case. And so we are constantly trying to figure out how do we, you know, connect with our local community?

And I also kind of wonder if part of the tuning out is there’s nowhere they feel—because we—I do think there’s a big middle. Because we talked about polarization. And there are certainly two sides. And in Oklahoma, it’s definitely a red state, but I hear people in the middle saying: I just don’t know where I fit. And so I think those people tune out, because if you have more analysis than you do news, and they don’t feel like they fit into that, you know, ends, I kind of wonder if part of that is what’s leading people to say: I don’t see myself reflected here.

ROBBINS: So we have a question from Mary Ellen Klas. Ms. Klas, will you identify yourself and ask your question?

Q: Hi, yes. I am a reporter with the Miami Herald and have been covering government and politics for more than thirty years.

And, you know, there was a time before the internet when we actually did man-on-the-street interviews and, you know, before people relied on social media. And back then—back in the, you know, ’80s and ’90s, it was—there was a lot of focus on national politics because of cable and the network news. And I’ll tell you, I never have—I can’t remember any time when we do these man on the street interviews where people actually could identify who—people sometimes didn’t know who their governor was. They rarely could tell you what the controversial issue was before the school board. So I think—I think news media—maybe that was selective avoidance, but I also think that’s is kind of where we are.

So my basic question here is, is it really an issue of—you know, are people really selectively avoiding the news? Or is it the fact that, as Ben was kind of mentioning, people no longer have a connection to their local news source? And I feel like it is the disappearance of local news that has led to the fact that people don’t trust. They used to—you know, how many times have you seen somebody put a clipping on their wall because they were quoted in the in the local paper? There was some connection. Every politician I’d connect with knew a reporter. That no longer happens. And so I think it’s—I’m wondering how much is selective avoidance and how much is really the absence of the deterioration of our local news ecosystem?

GRAHAM: I’ll let Ben take the first—

ROBBINS: My husband worked at the Miami Herald for eleven years, and you’re breaking my heart. I just want you to know that, but—(laughs)—you still have a paper, you know, Ginnie, in your—in your city. It sounds like it’s reasonably robust.

GRAHAM: Well, I mean, to be honest, I’ve been here thirty years. When I started, our newsroom had about 180 people. We’re at about sixty. So, I mean, it’s—in the thirty years. And so, when you say people don’t know a reporter, there may be no reporters. I mean, there’s not as many to know. But I have the same concern. I do think there is news avoidance more than before, just by what I’ve seen and experienced and heard. But there is this disappearing of—you know, we’re Tulsa, we’re the metro area. It’s all the papers around us, you know, the small town in the panhandle of Oklahoma used to have a lot more papers. And so, but when that goes away—and this happened with my mom. She lived in a rural part of the area. And the bridge that took her to and from her community was out. She had no idea why it was out. There was no newspaper, no media to explain to people why is this bridge out? But she knew exactly what was happening in the White House that day, because the only news that she had access to was that national news.

And so sometimes that—whatever the national rancor is, kind of we feel that on the local level. And so, but I will say that I think that more people—this was sort of, you know, talking about good news, we’re bringing back our newspapers in education program, which were kind of big in the ’90s. And our company, and were owned by Lee Enterprises, was offering to teachers a complimentary digital subscription to the Tulsa World, our local paper, and that would give access to their students. And they were hoping for, like, you know, a couple of hundred teachers. And, like, within a week 522 teachers signed up and 31,000 students. So that was great news. To me, it shows people want local news. They want to teach it. They want to learn from it. And so I don’t think it’s completely doom and gloom. I do think there are people out there, but maybe—but I was thinking, maybe that’s the cost issue. And so we’re always at the local level trying to figure out how do we connect? How do we find that, so people do know a reporter at their local paper?

ROBBINS: So, I mean, that’s fabulous. I mean, that’s exciting to me, as someone who’s now a teacher. (Laughs.)

GRAHAM: Yeah, and it’s still going up. So I’m excited about it.

ROBBINS: So, Ben, you teach in a journalism school, which means that people are still paying to study journalism in hopes of getting careers in the business. So you must be giving people advice about how to—you know, how to produce news that people are going to want to read. So give us some—give us some advice here, Ben. (Laughter.)

TOFF: Yeah, I mean, I think—so, yeah, I’ll start there. I mean, I do think that there are things that can be done on the kind of content side to meet people where they are in terms of, like, particularly the very disengaged audience. So thinking in terms of really focusing to communicate the relevance of a particular topic for somebody who’s only, like, half paying attention to this, and they’re going to see this in between eighteen other things are doing, and haven’t necessarily been following it. And so I think that there’s opportunity there to kind of get more targeted in terms of the way that you present a story for these different audiences that maybe go more in depth or less in depth, when people are looking for that. I think, obviously, you know, when it comes to like, a lot of negative news, there’s—you know, I’m not going to say anything that people haven’t heard before in terms of solutions journalism, but, you know, focusing on things that can actually be done, not just, like, hitting people over the head with all these horrible things happening over and over again.

And then I think—you know, to be honest, I think a lot of it is really about the kind of larger relationship that people have with news, which is not always about the content. A lot of what I think—if we’re really honest about what drew people to local news or news in general, it’s often a sort of cultural connection, cultural practices that go back to habits. It goes back to communities they’re a part of, and the extent to which people talk about what was in the paper that day or what was on the news that evening. And are sort of embedded in larger communities of social ties where news as a kind of—news consumption as a practice is something that people enjoy, and get something out of, and it’s, like, part of those connections with other people in their communities.

And to the extent that that’s going away, which is a matter of not only about the news itself but also a matter of these different ways in which people have to spend their time with all sorts of different media that just weren’t around before, they’re—so, yes, news avoidance has always been around in some form or another. But I think there was a lot more news consumption that was happening incidentally as people were keeping the TV on after primetime, and they would see the local evening news because of that. Or their family would always get the local paper because they’d always gotten the local paper. It was always around when people were exposed to—and then ultimately developed these habits, which became kind of ritualized, became a kind of a touch point in their lives, that they got a lot out of that wasn’t even about the actual content of the information.

And those practices have gone away for a lot of different reasons. And they’re probably not coming back. Finding ways of kind of becoming part of people’s regular routines that they do have, whether it’s through newsletters or whether it’s through podcasts or things that kind of fit into the modern ways that people live their lives, I think is essential to be able to be sort of top of mind when people think about where they might turn for information. Because the other thing is, like, there’s a lot of local information that people can get from all sorts of places that are not the local news organization.

The things that people really value local news for in the past, like the weather, or restaurant openings, or, you know, things that—you know, sort of announcements about people’s weddings or deaths or—these things that were sort of so essential to local news in the past, there are lots of other places that people turn to for that kind of information now. And so that’s what news organizations are competing with. They’re not just competing with other news now. They’re competing with all those other tools that people have at their disposal that people like.

ROBBINS: So I want to ask Ginnie about whether there are any cool additional ideas in her newsroom. But we have a whole bunch of local journalists, or journalists, on this. Come on, you guys. You’re awfully quiet today. Is anybody doing anything cool in your newsroom? You have any suggestions, any ideas, debates going on?

Susan Gile Wantuck, please.

Q: Hi.

I’m not—I don’t have a response to your last thing that you said. But I work for a public radio station in Tampa. And one of the challenges that we have is with the changes in people’s habits post-COVID. A lot of people aren’t listening in the car because they’re not commuting. So that’s affecting our bottom line. And I just—I just wondered if you all had any ideas about that. I mean, we’re trying to do more podcasts that are relatable and things that people want to hear. But other than that, I don’t know how to alter what we do to make ourselves more relevant and indispensable to people who are consuming news, or who have always consumed news from our station. They’re just listening less and because, of the economy, that’s probably why they’re not giving as much.

GRAHAM: I mean, we’ve had really good response with podcasts. I mean, we’ve been playing around with it for a few years. I do see your issue with when people are wanting the headlines in the car, because that’s where I—you know, I turned to my local NPR station and get the headlines. But I do find people are listening more because they’re at the computer more. And so we’ve—for locally—what I do is I think, for people who are writing op-eds for me, I use the podcast to delve more into that. And depending on what the topic is and who I’m interviewing—you know, if it’s a lawmaker who’s doing something kind of big or controversial, they want to know more of, it’ll have bigger numbers, of course. So I always sort of use it as an extension of what’s in the paper. And then—(laughs)—I always tell them, I go, don’t give everything away. You want them to read what you’ve written for the opinion section.

And so—and sports always post big numbers, because people love sports. I mean, it’s Oklahoma. We just beat Texas. You know, it’s a big thing. But we also have—and right now with the Killers of the Flower Moon movie is getting ready to come out this month. And so we’ve done a lot around that, done a lot of podcasting around that. So I do find when people don’t read, sometimes they will listen. So we’re still playing with that. And we’re having some pretty good response from it.

ROBBINS: So, Ben, can we talk about—a little bit about who the audience is? I mean, do we have to write off the right and the left and just focus on the shrinking middle for straight news? Because one of the things in your study I think I saw that sort of freaked me out was people are even moving away from Facebook. Now Facebook’s moved off of news. But people are moving on to Telegram and WhatsApp because they’re moving away from even MSNBC and Fox. That they seem to want to go even into a tighter and tighter bubble for their conversation, which is a pretty—to me, a pretty frightening notion. You know, we saw the news bubble in 2016 as being just separated between two universes. But the notion that you can have an ever-tight tighter blackhole there. Are we basically just focusing on, you know, the swing vote here, and just see our audience that way?

TOFF: I guess I would think about it as kind of more than just those—that kind of left-right dimension. That there’s actually a larger set of people who are—it’s not so much that they’re necessarily in the middle, but they’ve kind of—they’re less interested in politics altogether. And so, you know, when you ask them they will have a hard time placing themselves on the right or the left. They might not—they might have some ideas that are—you know, you would recognize as being very right-wing or very left-wing. But they—most of them, they want nothing to do with politics. And there’s a larger segment of those people in this country than really see themselves on the left or the right, or see themselves as moderate.

And I do think that there’s a real, I think, both need and opportunity there to kind of focus on that set of people. You know, I think that there’s—it’s very clear that the left is currently—feels very well-served by the sources of news that are out there. And, of course, there are some—there’s people on the on the right who consume tons and tons of news, and they have lots of sources that they can turn to as well. But I think so much of our—as we’ve moved towards more of a, like, subscription model for most newspapers, and as local news have gotten smaller and smaller, everybody’s kind of fighting for—because those are the people most likely to subscribe, are the people who are most politically engaged, and they’re the ones who are kind of most interested in the, like, ins and outs of every little political story.

But that, I think, has had an effect on—for the rest of the public, who’s not that interested in politics—which has always been the case. There’s always been a large segment of the American public who’s not particularly interested in politics, not particularly knowledgeable. But there are fewer news outlets that are really aimed at, when it comes to their political coverage, really trying to communicate to the audience because the incentives aren’t really there. And so I do think that’s, I think, a need and also, I think, a way—I don’t know, I do think of it as maybe an opportunity to try to engage with that set of readers, or listeners, or audiences differently.

ROBBINS: Well, I know we only have a couple of minutes left because I know you have to catch a plane and we promised to tie this up. But, Ginnie, I’m going to ask you an out of left field question here, but we are at the Council on Foreign Relations. You seem to sort of have this demarcation, and maybe I’m reading it wrong, but, I mean, I was horrified by the notion that your mother’s cohort didn’t know why this bridge was down. And clearly my first reaction was, where was Pete Buttigieg? (Laughter.)

GRAHAM: Not in Oklahoma.

ROBBINS: Who should have been—he was too busy fixing I-95, right? But does that mean that that you all shouldn’t be, you know, writing about the war in Ukraine? Or do you only write about the war in Ukraine if there are Ukrainian refugees in your community? I mean, how do you take something as big as that and make it relevant for your local readership? Or do you just say, well, I’ll let the wire services do that. I’ll let the New York Times handle that. I’ll let, you know, the national news handle that. That’s not my job.

GRAHAM: No, we still, when something big like that happens, there’s a local connection. I mean, we’re—we have 650,000 in our, you know, metro area and, you know, million when you get out to the MSA. I mean, it’s—we have Ukrainian refugees here. We have, you know, a thriving Jewish community that is very much affected by what’s happening in Israel. And so we still have, you know, reporters that we run that national story, but we have our local reaction. Because I think the local—because people know who these local people are. And, you know, we’re curious. Do you have someone that you’re worried about? How does this affect you?

And then we also, you know, have people who are—you know, also we have Palestinian people, you know, people have Palestinian families who, you know, are worried, how—you know, how will this affect us? You know, we don’t, you know, make that differentiation between Hamas and Palestinian, especially when you’re in a place like Oklahoma, where people may not know the ins and outs of the history of that conflict, to make that clear. Because we don’t know what they’re hearing on national television.

But no, that’s still very much, I think, an important part of what we do, because, you know, we’re a diverse community. Politically, we don’t look diverse from the outside of Oklahoma, but for those of us who lives here, we certainly are. And I think that’s our job, is to point out those different perspectives and people living here. And, you know, you talk about most people aren’t political, I would agree. But I think sometimes so much politics is just—it’s a turn off for people who particularly aren’t tuned in.

But I do think that’s where some of the other things that media companies do—those food reviews. One of our biggest podcasts was we have an old Casa Bonita. It’s a cheesy restaurant that, you know, was on South Park, if you guys don’t know. But it’s empty. And we had the owner of the building do a podcast with us on what’s going to happen to that building. We had—I mean, it was like through the roof. So people will come to us for the different kinds of content. And I think as long as we keep doing that, doing just interesting local stories, eventually that trust is built. That, you know, we did a good job, we provided them information they are just naturally interested in. So when maybe something political comes up, we’ve already sort of established that we’re here doing that kind of work. So I think just—it sounds cliché—but just doing good journalism, I think, really is at the heart of what we have to continue to do.

ROBBINS: It’s a wonderful place to end. We’re going to—Ben, thank you so much for doing this. Ginnie, thank you so much. Thank you for everybody. We’re going to share, Benjamin’s study and some other clips with you all. And I’m going to turn it back to Irinia. And, Ben, run to your—run to your plane.

TOFF: Thank you.

ROBBINS: Run, run, run. Don’t fall.

FASKIANOS: Yes. Run, run, run. Thank you all.

GRAHAM: Thank you. I loved your research. It was very helpful.

TOFF: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: It was. And we will share the links again, along with the link to this video and transcript. And, again, please do come to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they’re affecting the United States. We have a lot of information about the Israeli-Hamas conflict on our website. So I encourage you all to go there. As well as tune into Carla’s podcast, The World Next Week. And thank you, again. We ask that you send us suggestions for future webinars. Email us at [email protected]. So thanks to Ben Toff, who’s already signed off, Ginnie Graham, and Carla Robbins.

ROBBINS: Thanks, Irinia.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

ROBBINS: Thanks, everybody.

(END)

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