Why Audiences Hate Hard News—and Love Pretending Otherwise

Ask readers what they want, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy. 

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You may not realize this, but we can see you. Yes, you. The human reading this article. We have analytics that tells us roughly where you are, what site you've just arrived from, how long you stay, how far you read, where you hop to next. We've got eyeballs on your eyeballs.

Why is it so important that digital news organizations track which articles you're reading on our websites? The obvious answer is that it teaches us what you're interested in. The less-obvious, but equally true, answer is that it teaches you what you're interested in.

If we merely asked what you wanted, without measuring what you wanted, you'd just keep lying to us—and to yourself.

Here's what I mean by lying. This year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism asked thousands of people around the world what sort of news was most important to them. The graph below shows the responses from Americans. International news crushed celebrity and "fun" news by a margin of two-to-one. Economic and political news finished even higher.

But what happens when we stop asking readers what's important and start looking at what they actually read?

Let's start with today. The most important story in the world, according to every major American newspaper this morning, is the violent splintering of Iraq. It was the front-page and top-of-the-homepage story in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and more.

Surely, there are millions of people who are reading about Iraq, because they're fascinated in the Middle East, in foreign policy, or in the general news cycle. But despite Iraq's prominent location on every major newspaper, the most-read stories on those papers' websites aren't about Iraq, at all.

In the Post, the top stories included an op-ed about Benghazi, and updates about the World Cup and a midwest tornado. WSJ's most-read box led off with two stories about YouTube games and taxes. The Times' most-emailed stories included two pieces about gluten and postpartum depression. Not one of the most-read or most-emailed boxes on three papers' websites included the words Iraq, Sunni, or Maliki when I looked this morning.

Iraq is a uniquely difficult news story. But there's nothing unique about U.S. readers side-stepping the news cycle. Last year, BuzzFeed released a review of traffic to sites within its partner network, including the New York Times and The Atlantic. Of the 20 most viral stories across those sites, just three dealt with recent news events—the Miss America Pageant, a Netflix announcement, and the Video Music Awards —but the vast majority weren't news. They were quizzes, lists, and emotional poppers.

Ask audiences what they want, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy.

Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour—1.08 percent of Fox News' audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.

The culprit isn't Millennials, or Facebook, or analytics software like Chartbeat. The problem is our brains. The more attention-starved we feel, the more we thirst for stimuli that are familiar. We like ice cream when we're sad, old songs when we're tired, and easy listicles when we're busy and ego-depleted. The Internet shorthand for this fact is "cat pictures." Psychologists prefer the term fluency. Fluency isn't how we think: It's how we feel while we're thinking. We prefer thoughts that come easily: Faces that are symmetrical, colors that are clear, and sentences with parallelisms. In this light, there are two problems with hard news: It's hard and it's new. (Parallelism!)

Fluency also explains one of the truisms of political news: That most liberals prefer to read and watch liberals (because it feels easy), while conservatives prefer to read and watch conservatives (because it feels easy). It's a not-even-industry-secret that down-the-middle political reporting that doesn't massage old biases is a hard sell for TV audiences. Fox News has monopolized the market of 60-and-overs watching cable news, predominantly because that group watches the most cable news and naturally skews conservative. Grappling with new information is exhausting, so we prefer to consume it in explicitly digestible lists or wrapped in old viewpoints we already have.

Before there were eyeballs on your eyeballs, it was difficult to know exactly what you were reading. The Times knew you subscribed to the Times, for example, but we couldn't see exactly what pages you were reading. We could survey readers to learn what they wanted, but readers lie.

The analytic age of journalism has its detractors, but with regard to serving our audience, it gets us closer than ever to that highest purpose of journalism: learning the ugly truth.