Strange Times: Good News Would be Big News

04/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tim Berry Founder and Chairman, Palo Alto Software

I'm so done with people blaming "the media" for bad economic news. New media or old, one constant is that it's about getting an audience. What's news is what's different, surprising, interesting, or remarkable. It's not good or bad, it's news.

Today I saw the blog post here that says 57% of some group of small business owners surveyed by somebody said they have not been damaged by the downturn, and adds, triumphantly:

What is really remarkable to me about these results is that if you listen to the media, every business in the US is on the brink of disaster.

What? Really? So 43% of business owners say their business is hurting, and that isn't bad enough to justify the coverage? That sounds terrible to me. What would be normal? And what's the point of media bashing -- or is it just a habit?

I really enjoyed Mike Hegedus' post here last week about how NBC anchor Brian Williams is looking for good news. His audience is tired of bad news. Mike says:

'Good news' has a strange connotation in the news business. It conjures up images of old guys making toys for kids out of wire hangars (I've actually done that story), or a couple in Utah that provides a home for any abandoned Golden Retriever--as in any dog of that breed anywhere in the U.S., including Alaska (I've done that one too). They and any number of other stories about the goodness of mankind, the depth of the human spirit, the steadfastness of the American soul are all out there, waiting to be done, looking for a broadcast home. Some of them make it, the vast majority do not. Why?

Why? I'll tell you why: because of viewer ratings, readership surveys, web traffic, and other measures of audience. News is new, different, surprising, and remarkable, not just nice. You and I don't click on the headline to read about nice. We turn the channel on nice.

And that's not today, or new media; that's since a long time ago. More than 30 years ago I was a young night editor for United Press International when an old day editor took me out for a beer, and gave me the scoop about what would beat the Associated Press in news coverage of the day. He listed a few dozen words that worked well in headlines. You guessed it: "brutal, violent, naked, bizarre..."

A friend just walked in to meet me for lunch; looked at a draft of this post and added, "our local paper has been using "fired" and "layoffs" a lot.

This isn't "the media," it's the reality. We've got the Dow tanked, the banks teetering, property values down, stocks and bonds down, huge unemployment, falling profits. We might as well blame the media for Hurricane Katrina. This is a real storm.

And the good news -- pardon the pun -- is that it's been so bad that good news is, for a change, news. I decided last Friday that I didn't want to blog about the latest ADP employment report because it's not a surprise that another 650,000 people lost their jobs last month. Then I saw Steve King's angle on the ADP report, in this post, where he says it's good news because only 650,000 jobs were lost, and that was less than the month before. See, he gets it. He made bad news into good. We are that turned around.

That's a stretch, sure, but we're all looking for new angles. Signs of a turnaround. That would be big news. We've had so much of the bad news that even a decline in the rate of job loss comes out as good news. I'd love to see an increase in the Dow, a bump in house prices, a rise in bank lending to small business, bipartisan cooperation in congress, or Rush Limbaugh rooting for Barack Obama to succeed. Any of that would be good news, and big news.

The man biting the dog is news, but the dog biting the man isn't. It's not because the dog biting the man is nice, but rather because it's what we expect; its normal. And, speaking as the man, I think the good news is me biting the dog, rather than vice-versa; so it's not just that bad news is the better news. It's the surprise. So these days, since the crash, decline is normal, improvement is news.

Please, world, surprise me: give me some good news. And media: just keep it real, I promise not to shoot the messenger.