Press as Commercial Enterprise

In the nature of democratic societies, the business of news itself has become part of a commercial enterprise. The commercialism of media was a natural outcome of the greater audiences that it could reach and to which it could sell. The entrepreneurial opportunity created a system of competition as newspapers, radio and TV stations developed and expanded their programs to claim audience share. Businesses turned the media into an arena for selling other products, which in the fifties developed advertising as a separate and influential industry.

Advertising staples have broken from soup, soap and smoke to every kind of product and service available, creating separate sections for classified ads that included property, used goods and a range of services.

Newspapers which were sold on the streets created commerce for new markets.  It was easy enough to identify the subjects that would naturally draw the curious to buy a newspaper.  The editorial process accommodated by producing sensational headlines to boost sales.  Yellow journalism refers to the news style that appealed to the lowest common denominator among the range of public interest. Everyone is interested in “scandal, sex and crime” and the treatment that focuses on the sensational. (David, 1990)

Unfortunately, the production of news was not protected from the reach of commerce. News became just another part of the media service which the public pays for, either as subscribers or as consumers of the products advertised on radio and television.

Philippine radio and television followed the American broadcast system, which was the first to operate on ratings for advertising revenue.  In doing so, radio and TV failed the democratic imperative by opening up the news to the same system of ratings as entertainment. This subjected TV and radio news to the test of popular appeal. Journalism conventions reflected the natural inclinations and interests of the ordinary news consumer: What were their common interests and concerns? The criterion for “wide interest” often determined what news would get time or space.

This enhanced the primacy of crime and other sensational news to dominate the agenda. Appealing to wide interest may sometimes run against the other value of relevance, the importance and significance of news. News then is often produced according to the demands of popularity, much like the entertainment and show-business industry.  This may be the reason media have fallen short of its objective, to inform citizens so that they can participate meaningfully in the public forum, and enable voters to choose their leaders wisely.

Market Segmentation

Tabloid news caters to the mass audience which looked to the news story as a source of excitement and an escape from the humdrum routine of daily life. Tabloid news concentrates on news from the police blotter. The crime story is inherently interesting even to the elite audience. There is a shared curiosity about the private lives of celebrities. Such publications sought to provide the news which people were curious to know about, instead of the news about developments that affect their lives.

The daily broadsheets evolved a more selective approach to the news they carried, as the industry recognized an audience segment which wanted more in their news than what could be found in the tabloid press. But the pull of popular news has affected the broadsheets as well.

The so-called “quality press” set itself apart from the penny-press by producing news for citizens who wanted to know more or at least be in the know, a consumer of news who looked to the papers to be continuously educated.

The press drew out such news from sources, mostly prominent people who had status in society for their expertise or knowledge or those active in government service. Newsrooms assigned reporters to the different offices of government, the executive, legislative and the judiciary. 

The news beats identified government as a primary source of news, as well as those with whom government interacts more visibly, institutions of power, such as the church and business. The practice has placed journalists closer to the agencies of the elite establishment, the holders of power and set them at a distance from the concerns of ordinary people.

In setting the news agenda, journalists must recover its connections with the public, the people, not just those who are important because of their power, or wealth, or their celebrity and influence. But even more so, news must be include the stories of those who do not belong to these power groups, so that their needs become part of the shared goals of a society.

If poverty is the problem, then the issues of the poor should be part of the news, referring to government authorities so that they can prioritize the problems of the poor.

If natural disasters are a recurring problem, then the news must write about the issues of climate change and the need to review patterns of development. Journalists do not have to wait for the disaster to happen to write about what can be done by those in government so as to lessen the loss of lives and the devastation of properties.

This means including more science in disaster-related news so that the facts about rainfall, climactic changes and weather patterns are better understood by ordinary people.

The greatly improved capacity of the PAGASA to predict the path of an oncoming storm has had a positive effect on the way news presents the stories of storms and have helped local government especially to prepare their communities for disaster experience.

The challenge of journalism is to make such issues interesting to the public, making them aware of the relevance of such stories to the lives of the people.

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