There’s a saying in the news business: “if it bleeds, it leads.”
That’s why stories about murder, violence and tragedy end up on front pages and at the top of the news broadcast, even when there is plenty else going on in the community.
It’s also why many media owners and editors keep reporters on police and crime beats when they have to cut them from less sensational areas, like education, community development, the environment or local development. And so that dictates what news makes news. (And, subsequently, how that community perceives itself.)
Over the past week I’ve come to wonder whether we can add another saying to describe news that sells, particularly in this age of digital sharing: “If it cries, it flies.”
This past week was a banner week for Hub communications, breaking all records of traffic to our website, wvhub.org. Heck, we crashed the thing by exceeding the bandwidth. In my line of work, that’s a win.
So what was all the fuss about? There were two stories we put out through The Hub blog that drove most of the traffic.
The first story was a powerful letter from the leaders of Generation New River Gorge, expressing great disappointment in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the elected officials that sponsored and supported it.
The second was a piece by The Hub’s own Deputy Director Stephanie Tyree.
It was a rare moment of public despondency for Stephanie. In the Legislative Hubbub each week throughout the legislative session, Stephanie stays intently focused on positive action, shining a light on the policy and proposals that reflect the grassroots community development ambitions of the citizens of West Virginia.
Her Legislative Hubbub writing strives to stay inherently optimistic. What’s happening that people can influence? Where are the small gains being made? What communities and local sectors are demonstrating the power of being proactive, and organized? These are the core tenets of The Hub, and we believe strongly that West Virginia needs positive solutions, not a catalogue of problems.
Last week, however, our optimism suffered some erosion, and the result was Stephanie’s lamentation on the state of the Capitol in 2016.
“The politics seems to have overwhelmed the policy this year, and West Virginians are getting tired of it.”
These two stories struck a nerve, though, generating thousands of hits across social media and overwhelming The Hub’s modest bandwidth.
But what was it about these stories that proved so much more compelling to readers than our other stories, stories focused on positive action?
The keywords: disheartening, embarrassed, worsen, exodus, disappointed.
They were stories of lamentation and of woe, that highlighted a dire strait of affairs rather than the glimmers of hope and opportunity.
Over the past year I have not once been able to attract as big an audience as this with stories about achievement, success and community initiative.
Examining the web traffic, I started to wonder: Is West Virginia developing a bad news fetish? Are we actually, in some way, more comfortable with reflections of our despondency? “If it cries, it flies…”
If The Hub were a for-profit media company, where web traffic and readership numbers dictate revenue and jobs, the natural progression would be to focus on problems, on failures, on bemoaning the state of the state and on pointing fingers.
Opinion pieces would take precedence over reporting of useful information and coverage of positive grassroots activity. We could criticize and lambast without having to discover or explore positive pathways forward. We could blast headlines of righteous indignation without having to work too hard at generating solutions.
For a communications guy it’s a tempting route toward a bigger readership, and news media across the country is following this model – giving more space to columnists and opinion writers and less to hard-edged reporting. It’s cheap and it’s lazy, and our communities are poorer for it.
But The Hub has bigger fish to fry. For us, a win is when we give someone the courage and the tools to try something great in their community, no matter how small. Or when the information we provide makes it possible for someone to get involved and contribute to change.
It can feel very incremental. And despondency does creep in from time to time, as we saw last week. But talk of defeat is only a passing aberration.
So, pardon the interruption. We return you now to your regularly scheduled programming.