And so, with the demise of 6.30 with George Negus, Australia’s dirtiest secret has been exposed. There’s no longer any point denying it, now the courageous programming innovation featuring the moustachioed one has come to an end. The evidence is clear: we’re a country of Philistines who couldn’t give two hoots about serious news and current affairs.

It’s not that we didn’t already know this; we just didn’t want to accept it. We tried to ignore the fact that more Australians would rather watch grimace-inducing talent shows than hard-hitting investigative journalism; listen to crank calls than probing interviews and read celebrity gossip than analysis.

It’s this conundrum that casts a shadow over the future of Australian media. Are the punters always right? Is the only commercially sensible option to give consumers what they want? Or should the media favour its public-interest role and give people what they should want? This is a fundamental question, because despite the fine words uttered about the accountability that media must enforce in a healthy democracy, media organisations are firstly commercial enterprises. Aside from the public broadcasters, every other media organisation, large or small, needs to make enough money — either through advertising/sponsorship or sales, to continue operating. Some also need to provide returns to their shareholders.

Those that ascribe to Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow syndrome, would argue that it’s the drive to give media consumers what they want that has led to the re-packaging of news and analysis as entertainment. Politicians are similarly accused of dumbing-down their messages to make them more interesting to the public.

The demise of 6.30 and the modest audiences generated for most serious news and current affairs programs makes it hard to argue against this perspective. Even so, the solution being advocated to reverse the Sideshow trend is simply illogical.

Media academics and commentators suggest that the news-as-entertainment mentality can be neutralised by somehow requiring media organisations to provide more coverage and analysis of serious events and policy issues. There appears to be an assumption embedded within this solution that “if you print it, they will read it”.

But, as we know, the evidence suggests otherwise. If somehow the Herald Sun was required to provide more considered reports on superannuation or health policy, or the unravelling of the Greek economy, does anyone honestly think that any more people would buy it and any less would read it from the back page first?

It’s not that the majority of people want merely to be entertained; they want information that connects with them and the lives they lead. People have simple needs when it comes to the media. They want to know “what happened today and what does it mean for me?” Yes, some people also want to know what it means for the community, the country or the world, but those people are fewer in number. An even smaller number of people also want to tweet, comment or blog about the event and its implications.

But it is the will of the majority that shapes a democracy. The preference of those who choose not to watch ABC24, or listen to PM or read The Monthly, will guide the reconfiguration of Australia’s media as it grapples with the opportunities and challenges presented by the online world.

This is not to suggest that the Sideshow will become bigger and even more perverse. Frankly, it’s journalistic laziness to simply make news entertaining instead of framing it to be interesting or compelling.

While most of the public is disengaged from political events and current affairs, they’re far from being passive consumers. They demand engagement from their service and product providers, to be heard and to have their needs met.

This applies equally for the consumers of news media. Clearly newspaper circulation numbers are dropping because readers aren’t getting what they now want from a news product. Instead of presuming to know what’s best for the public, and what it is that they should want to know, it would benefit journalists and their proprietors to better understand what the public actually wants to know.

An excellent example of a media organisation doing exactly that was the Sunday Age, which invited their readers to guide the paper’s climate change agenda by nominating and voting on the top ten questions to be reported upon. Over a four-week period, 567 questions were posted, around 4000 comments were made debating the questions, and almost 20,000 votes were cast.

This participatory approach to generating news is one of the ways that traditional media will re-establish themselves as relevant and responsive to their customers. There will be other ways too.

If the commercial media model is to survive, then media businesses will indeed accept that the punter is always right. There is no alternative. The pressure will be on politicians, media academics and the commentariat to accept this too, although I doubt they will.

If a genuine attempt is made to understand what the public really does want from their news products, we may all end up being pleasantly surprised. And if news organisations can deliver what the public really wants, then our democracy will be better for it.

This piece originally appeared in The Kings’ Tribune

Post script: This great piece on the media consumer being right from the head of news at ninemsn. 

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