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We still want to consume news – but tastes are changing

Shows such as Kitchen Cabinet can elicit unexpected – and genuinely newsy – responses from guests. ABC

We still want to consume news – but tastes are changing

Earlier this year, the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott announced Australia’s public broadcaster would begin a search “to find creative ways to deliver news to children and teenagers”.

In the announcement, Scott rightly commented that:

Younger audiences are interested in news … but they don’t particularly want it formatted and delivered in a way that it would’ve once been delivered to their parents.

This initiative should be applauded, of course, although the problem it is seeking to address is hardly a new one. As Jon Katz, writing in Rolling Stone, argued:

It’s hard to think of anything the [news media] could have done to ignore or alienate younger consumers that it didn’t do – or isn’t doing still. It has resisted innovative design, clung to its deadly monolithic voice, refused to broaden or alter its definitions of news and – most importantly – trashed the culture of the young at every opportunity.

Katz said that in 1993, and mainstream news broadcasts haven’t changed an awful lot in the intervening decades. But the rest of the television schedule has changed – quite dramatically – and young audiences have steadily drifted away from this quite stale, ageing, even inauthentic format.

There are a couple of different ways of interpreting this shift.

We could look at the phenomenon and say – as some have – that people aren’t consuming journalism at the rate that they used to, are therefore less-informed than ever, and that trend will eventually see the complete demise of the “quality” news media. Worse still, people will be less informed about what’s going on in the political realm, and democracy will suffer as a result.

But, the reality is probably one that should make us quite optimistic.

As I noted at length in my recent book Australian TV News: New Forms, Functions, and Futures, a lot of people – not just younger generations, although that’s where the trend is most noticeable – are now eagerly consuming media content that simultaneously informs and entertains, thereby engaging the vast majority of people who aren’t political junkies.

Very little of this material is produced by people who would self-identify as journalists, but those sorts of labels are rapidly losing whatever relevance they once had, as what we count as being “news” spreads far beyond the outlets with which we once almost exclusively associated the term, to entertainment and even fictional genres (such as Aaron Sorkin’s current HBO drama The Newsroom).

Australia has a rich tradition of TV news formats that break from the mould. Going back even to Garry McDonald’s work as Norman Gunston in the 1970s, through Max Gillies in the 80s, to The Panel in the late 90s and early 2000s.

In more recent times we can look at the various incarnations of The Chaser, Shaun Micallef’s programs NEWStopia and Mad as Hell, The Roast, This Week Live, and a slew of others, as examples of shows that have played (to differing degrees) with political news.

ABC’s The Roast aims to ‘destroy every bastion of journalism known to man’. ABC

In fact, I would argue that satirical or entertaining news formats don’t just cover the news in an incidental or “soft” way, but, because they typically have no commitment to the professional standards or generic markers that underpin journalism, often expose viewers to a more genuine side of our politicians than mainstream news and current affairs.

The ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet is just one example of this. On that show, Annabel Crabb can elicit far more genuine responses to often pointed questions when her big-name political guests are distracted by cooking, and sometimes caught off guard in a more relaxed environment.

As much as I love and admire the work of Leigh Sales, her confrontational interviews on 7:30 with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott in the week leading up to the recent federal election elicited little more than a stale bunch of well-rehearsed talking points. Seeing the same two men in their own homes on Kitchen Cabinet was far more illuminating.

Dispensing with tradition, and trying something new and more enjoyable, is very often seen as a “dumbing down” of the news. But the irony is that these unorthodox approaches to news are often formats which reward authenticity and candour rather than political performance.

There are plenty of big implications to these trends, but one of the biggest in my mind concerns the area of journalism education. If breaking the rules of journalism results in not just some news coverage but more transparent news coverage, what value now lies in the rules and approaches currently being taught to aspiring journalists?

Indeed, if the traditional news outlets want to survive and prosper, they would be wise to look closely at the media young people consume.

To their surprise, they might just learn a thing or two.