On 18 April 1930 a BBC radio announcer replaced a news bulletin with the words: "There is no news." Nearly a century later what have we learned about how audiences make sense of the news?
89 years ago today on 18th April 1930 a BBC radio announcer opened his microphone for the 20:45 news bulletin and explained to a nation of listeners: “There is no news”.
The news bulletin now complete a pianist jumped to life playing a medley of tunes as a filler for the remainder of the quarter-of-an-hour news segment.
The radio programme then returned to a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal. The opera was broadcast live from the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London. The glass and brass doors of Broadcasting House in Langham Place wouldn’t open for another two years.
In the near-century that's past media has fragmented from print, radio and television to online and social media. Influencers have emerged on every media, in every market but that is for another article.
The splintering media is not new, you can trace it back to the 1920s with the advent of commercial radio. Widespread adoption of television in the 1950s added to newspaper circulation woes. The advent of the internet sped the disintegration of the media landscape.
Last year Reach, the owner of UK newspapers including The Express, The Star, The Mirror as well as OK magazine took a £200m hit. Johnston Press plc went into administration in 2018 after 251 years in the newspaper business.
We no longer like reading newspapers. The drive to advertise in them is dropping as a direct knock-on effect.
Those of us who do like reading newspapers are getting older. The average age of a Daily Mail reader is 58. For The Telegraph the average age is 61. The Independent audience is the youngest on average, at 43, while its sister paper, i, comes in considerably older, at 50.
Traditional text-based media are not alone in suffering. Born digital titles are also under pressure. Already this year we’ve seen journalists being laid-off from Buzzfeed, Vice and HuffPost. Whilst women's interest online title the Pool has entered administration.
In the UK we certainly don’t like paying for our news. Just 7% of people polled in the UK say they have paid for online news in the past 12 months. This is according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018
Viewing figures for free-to-air television channels show the average age of viewers is greying, too. The average age of a BBC1 viewer is 61. It’s a year older on BBC 2. Research by Enders Analysis places ITV’s average viewer at 60. It’s two years younger on Channel 5 at 58 and on Channel 4 the average viewer’s age is 55. Even at E4, the average age is 42.
The Reuters Institute recently undertook a separate study this time to understand how audiences make sense of the news. The key finding was that news had to be personally relevant.
“People find those stories most relevant that affect their personal lives, as they impinge on members of their family, the place where they work, their leisure activities, and their local community … . Relevance is tied to sociability. It often originates in the belief that family and friends might take an interest in the story. This is often coupled with shareability – a wish to share and tag a friend on social media … . News audiences make their own meanings, in ways that spring naturally from people’s life experience. The same news story can be read by different people as an ‘international’ story, a ‘technology’ story, or a ‘financial’ story; sometimes a trivial or titillating story is appreciated for its civic implications."
Parsing our news to see only the most personally relevant information to us is understandable. But at what risk?
In his book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media Cass R. Sunstein describes a double trigger needed for a well-functioning system of free expression:
- serendipity and;
- a broad church of experiences and points-of-view.
Sunstein writes: “First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself. Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating— but that might nevertheless change their lives in fundamental ways. … Second, many or most citizens should have a wide range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time addressing social problems.”
Sunstein’s words echo those of British philosopher John Stuart Mill who wrote in 1848: “it is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … . Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
The year of Mill’s writing should not be lost on us against today’s toxic BREXIT backdrop. 1848 has been called the year of revolutions and springtime of the peoples. Over 50 countries were affected. Some of the major contributing factors to disquiet and uprising were widespread dissatisfaction with political leadership, demands for more participation in government and democracy, the upsurge of nationalism, and the regrouping of established government forces. Perhaps these themes seem familiar in today’s BREXIT frenzy and farce?
Anyway, I digress. If 18th April 1930 was deemed to be a no-news day, which day was labelled the most boring?
April 11, 1954 – a Sunday. This is, according to William Tunstall-Pedoe, founder of Evi a technology company, the most boring day since records began. He reasoned to the Daily Mail: ‘Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one who might make that claim – Abdullah Atalar, a Turkish academic.
‘The irony is, though, that – having done the calculation – the day is interesting for being exceptionally boring.
‘Unless, that is, you are Abdullah Atalar.’
Enjoy 18th April and, before you press 'publish' on your next story first consider Josh Bernoff's iron imperative:
Do not waste the reader’s time.
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
Assume that your reader is quite impatient and has other things to do.