Bad news days – why some stories make the front page

It usually begins with an early morning phone call and an exasperated voice on the end of the line saying something like: Have you seen the front page?  Or, did you seen the news last night?

The voice belongs to an anxious client who has suddenly found their company has made the news, sometimes for all the wrong reasons.  The deeper question is really – why are we suddenly considered the leading item on today's news agenda?

What makes news is often pretty obvious…and sometimes an utter mystery.  So allow me to let you in on a secret: Determining what makes the news and what doesn’t is not always an exact science. Often it comes down to luck – or more precisely, bad luck. In TV news they call it the line-up.  In very simple terms, this is just the order in which the stories will run.  Most commercial TV news bulletins consist of 10 minutes in the first break, 5 minutes in the second, 7 minutes of sport, a couple of minutes of weather plus time for the all important commercials to help pay the bills.  

In commercial news and current affairs the lead item is determined primarily by viewer interest and yes, bad news tends to sell much better than the good. Some days though, to be frank, there just isn't that much around.  In my 10 years as a senior news producer I used to joke to colleagues that slow news days must have meant a pretty good day for the world because not much bad stuff was happening. Those days are the most dangerous for companies sitting on a potential news item . All of a sudden, what was likely to be squeezed into the second break becomes the lead story – or the front page. This is also why sneaky government PR folk often store up their dirty laundry media releases or announcements to pop out under the cover of the biggest news story of the week, month or year (depends on how dirty).  Unfortunately the opposite principle applies here: Poor news days mean that even the most inoccuous yarn that might be struggling to get a run on any other day is suddenly in 72 point headlines on page 1 or the subject of a two minute piece at the top of the TV news.

Of course, there are ways to navigate through this potential minefield – and I suppose that's why people like me have a job.  But don't let any PR or so called media guru tell you there is a perfect solution.  There's not.  One of the wonderful (and dreadful) things about the news agenda is that nobody really knows what is going to happen next. So next time your company finds itself at the centre of some unwanted attention courtesy of a prominent story on a slow news day, don't beat up yourself (or your PR people)…news happens.

My dark secret

I have to let you in on my dark little secret.  Before I retire, perhaps at a point where my credibility is completely shot – over the hill and far away – I want to test a theory of mine about the media.

From 20+ years as a news shark, waking up every day to feed the hungry beast I called a news service, I know how much the daily feeding frenzy needs so called peak-body groups to survive.

Grab any journalist’s contact book and I guarantee it’ll be stacked with names and contact numbers of organisations available to make comment on anything and everything.

Let me explain and you’ll have to forgive me if the example is a bit dark.  Back in the 80s, my city had a string of horrible crimes against young women.  There was fear and outrage.  And there was Citizens Against Crime.  Or at least there was one bloke called Bob, the President – at least that’s what my (and every other journo’s contact book said).  A day after police had issued their last appeal for information, we needed something to keep the story going and Bob always obliged.  Dial the number, set up the interview and voila: We had what we needed – someone calling for the return of the death penalty for murder.

One quiet afternoon a group of this were discussing this in the newsroom and someone asked:  Has anyone ever met another member of Citizens Against Crime?  None of us had.  The point was we didn’t care.  For all we knew this group consisted of one name only: Bob.  Perhaps at one time they were a truly representative body – but while the group faded, Bob’s name and the need for news commentary lived on in our contact books.

Nothing has changed.  The news cycle is still the same.  In fact, its gotten worse – much worse.  There used to be a rule in journalism about checking facts and comments with the primary source – not any more, especially with web based news services.  An issue breaks, an incident occurs.  After the initial facts, the media still needs commentary and there are plenty of Bobs about.  Except now they have blogs and email addresses. 

So to my secret: I’m going to set one up – an “interest” group, I mean.  I’ve got 20 bucks that says I can get at least one journo to interview me.  I’ll find a sexy issue, develop a catchy name – acronyms work well: AGRO – Australians Get Rubbish Out!  Haven’t you heard of us?  We’re opposed to the development of a nuclear waste facility in your backyard.  I’m the president by the way…available for comment anytime.

Twenty bucks anyone?

Recognise anyone here?

Okay, so newspapers are dying, the blogosphere is now the place for all really cool communications folk to hang out and ingest the public mood.
But what about the good ol' letters to the editor page?  This week's posting - ironically via a blog - comes from a guest contributor - and it's a chance to have a laugh, or perhaps even a little cry.*  Click below and enjoy. Even better, feel free to share.
*Yes, we are related. He's my son.

Why do journalists get it wrong?

Time after time surveys show that a lot of people who deal with journalists don’t trust them to accurately report the facts of a matter at hand. Why is that?

Contrary to the views of some of my clients, I’ve rarely encountered a journalist who deliberately sets out to present a false picture - but that doesn’t mean they often don’t get it wrong.