Hey Wilma vs. spinach. What matters for your audience.

A wise editor I knew once said there are two kinds of stories that the news media have to worry about: Hey, Wilma stories and Spinach stories.

Hey, Wilma stories are the ones that are inherently interesting to the audience. They frequently use news values like celebrity, bizarreness and impact to generate interest from the readers. They are the things people want to read.

Spinach stories are the ones we would call dull, but important. Things the city council does, for instance. They are the things people need to read. In the new media ecology, spinach stories are a hard sell, indeed.

Lots of times, media are criticized for having too much Hey, Wilma, and not enough spinach. Just this weekend, I was reading a book by a colleague who criticized the media for reporting blood and gore ahead of higher-impact matters like infectious disease. That’s true. It happens, but not for the reason you think. It’s not some sort of sick interest on the part of journalists or their audiences. It’s not (always) some impure profit motive that causes media to give the people what they want, even those people will go on to kill themselves through information malnourishment (although this happens more and more).

It’s the very nature of news itself, which is what’s new, what’s different, what’s stuff I need to know about now. Although large-scale risks and consequences are certainly important, if they’ve been around for ages, they are unlikely to make the news.

So what’s a writer to do? Even if you are writing for marketing, that novelty news value is key (probably second only to emotion in gathering attention).

  • Novelty can be a change in something (more people did something, prices haven’t been this low in 20 years, etc.)
  • Novelty can be a new area of interest or new product (Trader Joe’s does a good job of this).
  • Novelty can be a new action (“charity donates 20,000 mosquito nets” can be novel)
  • Novelty can be an unexpected source (“charity started by a 10 year old” would really be novel)

 

Important, though, fake novelty doesn’t work. The fact that you are discounting prices on Black Friday, just like you do every year? Not novel and seems manipulative.

But whether your message is pro-social or pro-business, novelty can work for you.

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