In the future of news, will the three criteria that make a good story still be relevant?

News judgment is an art, not a science, although algorithms might help explain who is interested in what

Prince Harry leaves the High Court in London in March. Legal proceedings involving his claims against various newspapers and journalists will get under way soon. Reuters
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Stuck in traffic, with nothing better to do, I switched on the radio and found a talk “news” channel. A caller complained about “too much bad news” for which he blamed “the media”.

With a war in Ukraine, a cost of living crisis, labour unrest and strikes in Britain and the intractable problems of climate change, blaming “the media” for bad news seemed like a sailor blaming the sea for being stormy.

When I talk to journalism students, I sometimes say that news is indeed often “bad” but that’s for the same reason that if your neighbour breaks a leg that’s more newsworthy than if he doesn’t.

Even so, a series of odd news stories have hit the headlines recently making me wonder if anyone, anywhere has a coherent definition of what “news” might be. Some years ago, a Florida TV station focused on crime with the slogan "If it bleeds, it leads”. Not very nice, but at least an understandable news focus given America’s gun violence. A British journalist once said to me that when asked for his definition of news, he would always say: "If it is news to you, then that’s news to me." Not everyone understood he was trying to make a joke.

News judgement is an art not a science, although algorithms may help explain who is interested in what

My personal definition is that news can be urgent, important or interesting and preferably all three. Any newspaper or TV news bulletin should carry a variety of stories that tick at least two of the three boxes. And that’s why several prominent stories in the past week have puzzled me. While they are obviously news – of some kind – their importance seems at best debatable, their urgency questionable and (my) interest in them also limited.

The three new stories I’m thinking of are US President Joe Biden tripping at a public event, a story about a relationship involving a British TV presenter, and just about anything about "Harry and Meghan" including a “car chase” in New York City. (I’ve never driven above 10 miles an hour in NYC.)

When I Googled Mr Biden’s name in connection with the US debt ceiling discussion, Google selected “Biden fall” and “Biden trip” as the first two choices, illustrated by film clips of the president stumbling at the US Airforce Academy in Colorado. Of course this is news. Of course Mr Biden’s age is a campaign issue in 2024. But … this much? Really?


Then Harry and Meghan. Like Mr Biden, they are worldwide celebrities and “newsworthy”. But they are not active royals. Information about them often depends on so-called “royal experts” whose “expertise” may not include actually having met, talked with or interviewed the targets of their insights.

I save a great deal of time when reading newspapers (and retaining what is left of my sanity) by swiping through almost all the Harry and Meghan stories, since few appear (to me at least) urgent, important, interesting – or even factually correct. One caveat: I will be paying close attention this week to the very serious legal proceedings in the British courts involving Prince Harry and his claims against various newspapers and journalists.

The third story that was big news recently in Britain is about a male daytime TV personality who admitted to a relationship with a much younger colleague. They worked for a time on the same ITV show. The presenter previously lied about the relationship. He has now resigned. There are no allegations of illegal behaviour.

I have never met the presenter. I have never seen his programme. Viewing figures for the TV show were boosted by news of the scandal, but normally they hover at fewer than 700,000 viewers a day. In a population of 68 million British people, that’s just 1 per cent, yet the obsession with this story in Britain meant it even made headlines on the BBC.

In a time of declining sales of newspapers and cut-throat competition for eyeballs online, it seems that a whiff of desperation is detectable in the spurious importance given to these minor tales by some news outlets. Why?

Well, a few years ago, colleagues at the BBC held a series of meetings with some of the best and brightest to discuss "the future of news" in the information age. After listening to the discussions, I concluded that the future of news was to be more local, or more national, or more international; more personal or more authoritative or more human; to have more analysis or less; to be more factual, more opinionated, more objective, and so on.

The honest truth is that nobody knows. We do our best. News judgment is an art not a science, although algorithms might help explain who is interested in what. News organisations I most admire – from The National to the BBC, The New York Times and Financial Times to magazines such as Perspective and The Atlantic – try to cover the widest possible range of events that are urgent, important and interesting. They also understand that trivia can be part of the news menu. But like junk food, there isn’t much nourishment in it.

Published: June 06, 2023, 7:00 AM