Column: News is whatever people want to talk about

Feb. 03, 2014 @ 04:15 PM

“The paper is mainly full of bad news.”

A reader, or maybe by now it’s more accurate to call her a former reader, included that in a letter this week. News, as defined by what most news organizations write about, was at the very bottom of the list of things she wants in a newspaper.

It’s a complaint that editors have heard at times literally for decades. It’s not true, though. Just look through the past week’s front pages:

Last Sunday had a story about a young boy who appears to be recovering from a near-fatal blood infection.

Tuesday had a story alerting readers of the coming Red Dress Dance to benefit the Wig Bank, one of the community’s many great charities.

Wednesday had a feature about John Hawkins, who plans to step down as director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum at the end of the year.

Thursday had a picture of children playing in the snow, and a promotional teaser about a feature on the sports page on the county’s high school runner of the year.

Friday had a feature about a man who puts together giant jigsaw puzzles.

We try as much as we can to present a mix, reflecting to some extent the variety of daily life.

I don’t think it’s a majority view, but there definitely is a certain segment of the population who would rather the paper be filled only with positive news.

But that would not seem to be what most people want. Go to any newspaper in the country and ask to see the best-selling and worst-selling papers of the past year, and you’ll be able to tell. I have a list of ours, and the worst-selling papers almost all were dominated by feel-good stories: the first day of school, the fiddler’s convention, a feature on a man living atop a mountain who has a lot of weather-watching instruments, a feature on a retiree, a festival preview, a positive business news story – on and on.

The top-selling papers by far have been anything involving a killing or anything involving the bankruptcy of Furniture Brands International.

You might argue that the high interest in bad news indicates that people like prurient news, kind of the print version of reality TV, but that’s not how I see it at all.

One thing that makes bad news inherently more attractive as reading material is that it’s more dramatic, which makes it more interesting.

And sometimes there certainly is a “there but for the grace of God go I” element at play. Stories of lives upended grab people and engage their emotions. Often, people call the News-Topic wanting to offer help to people whose tragedies have been told in the paper.

But mostly, I think people are looking for things to talk about. When they get together with friends or coworkers, someone is going to say, “Hey, did you hear about,” and launch into the most interesting thing that person has heard or read recently, and there is always a lot more to talk about when something bad happens than when something good happens.

“Did you hear? All of the planes coming to Charlotte yesterday landed safely.”

By definition, news is something unusual or unexpected. You expect your house not to burn down. You expect to arrive safely at your destination. You expect not to lose your job because the company is going out of business. You expect all these things because that’s what almost always happens, and it’s unusual when it doesn’t.

That’s why if any local newspaper ever makes a lot of money reporting nothing but good news it will be one of the biggest news stories of the year.