Think about the last story you read, bumped into on social media, or saw on the news — the last thing it seemed like everyone was talking about. You likely saw it in multiple locations if it was a “big” story. You know this information because someone, somewhere, decided it was news, and others followed suit. It became the news of the day. It had strong news value.
As Maxell McCombs and Donald Shaw claimed in 1972 in their well-known agenda-setting theory:
The media may not tell us what to think, but they tell us what to think about.”
A journalist determined that the news item you saw was newsworthy — it had news value — so it was, and it did.
News is whatever reporters and/or editors identify as having value.
But the truth is that the content people flock to, regardless of whether it’s journalism or something else, always has news value. There’s a reason journalists identified these traits of what people find interesting and have adhered to these news values in journalism for hundreds of years. They work to capture attention.
I’ve helped thousands of writers improve their writing. I’ve earned a full-time living writing and teaching writing for more than two decades. Learning what types of information attract people’s interest is key to always having ideas and knowing how to present information in a way that appeals to them.
In this post, you’ll learn why you need to define the value of information before you present it and what traits give something news value.
Why You Need to Define the Value of Information
I often think about when an editor turned down a story I pitched. It wasn’t the first time or only time an editor ever told me, “No thanks.” You build a thick skin for that when you’re in the writing business.
I think I remember this instance because I still don’t agree with her. I still think the story I was pitching had news value.
The state of Oklahoma released its Teacher of the Year nominees. The state names the teacher of the year every year during the state fair. It’s kind of a big deal because teachers in Oklahoma don’t get much credit or pay, so it’s nice to see the community recognize someone doing an exceptional job.
That year, the city I covered didn’t have a state Teacher of the Year nominee for the first time in years. I don’t know how many years because I never got that far into the process. My editor canned the story. She said, “A lot of cities didn’t have a state Teacher of the Year nominee. We’re not going to do a story about all of them.”
Now, I agree with that sentiment. I think there are like 12 nominees. There are more than 500 school districts in Oklahoma. Lots of cities never get a nominee.
But what if the city I covered had always had one? What if it was the first time in the award’s history (since 1955) that a teacher there hadn’t been nominated? I don’t know if either was the case. I probably could have found out relatively easily, but I was told to move on, so I did.
My point is that understanding what people are interested in helps you know where to dig. It helps you know what they’re likely to look at… what they want to read or know more about.
If you don’t have their interest, there’s no way you’ll get them to even click on your information, much less read it.
Here’s where I humbly admit that I may have found no story. I just wanted the chance to dig around. Because if it was the first time in 50 years that a teacher from the district hadn’t been nominated, some people in that community would find that information interesting. Some would even have theories as to why. Those theories could have led me to even more information with news value if I could have proven any of them to be true.
And so the news cycle ended before it had even begun.
Determining News Value: The Basics
Although it may sound arbitrary, journalists have a systematic approach to determining news value.
The single most important attribute of news is that it is NEW information.
News is the absolute newest thing you can tell someone. You want to provide the news in a timely manner that allows the public to get involved. This is the role of information in a democratic society:
“To provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”
It is what I personally view as journalists’ overwhelming purpose. It’s the reason for the profession, and it’s an honorable one that any writer should want to continue.
“Don’t just try to fill up the internet. Write something that’s real and honest and that helps people.”
When it comes to news, yesterday’s news is done. It’s at the bottom of the birdcage or in the recycling bin. It’s on the wrong side of search. Your readers don’t care what happened in the past. They only want to know what’s happening now.
In today’s fast-paced world, we have come to expect news to be reported online literally as it is happening. We get the play-by-play on social media of anything worth knowing, and a lot that isn’t.
Aside from being current, news also must fit these three criteria:
- Relevance. How does the information apply to the viewer or reader? If the information does not apply to the reader, it lacks news value.
- Usefulness. How can audience members use this information in their day-to-day lives? If the news is useful to the audience, you don’t have to convince them to read it or watch it. In other words, the “What’s In It for Me?” question is addressed or implied. When we talk about addressing people’s pain points or researching keywords people are likely to search for, we’re looking for useful information.
- Interest. Does the audience care? This should not be confused with whether the writer cares. We care about a lot of crap that other people don’t. There’s no amount of “You need this information. It’s good for you.” that will work today. People seek out information that supports their views and furthers their causes. If your audience isn’t interested in what you’re presenting, forget about it. Don’t waste your time writing it.
Other Factors that Determine News Value
So, those are the basics. News must be new. It has to be relevant to the audience. It needs to apply to them. They have to find it useful in their daily lives. If they do, they’ll seek it out. And they have to think it’s interesting. If they don’t, you won’t be able to force them to read it, even if they need it. They’ll click away.
Some other factors also help determine if an item has news value (aka, if the audience might find it interesting enough to read it.).
Impact as a News Value
How many people are affected, and how seriously? The greater the impact of an event, the more likely it will receive wide-scale and prominent coverage, and the more likely people are to care.
Remember when everything you saw on any media was about the COVID-19 pandemic? That’s because the impact of the pandemic was huge and unusual. Everyone wanted to understand what the heck was going on and how to stay safe.
Conflict as a News Value
Is there an issue? News is when things turn out differently than expected — when systems fail or business errs. When people make mistakes that impact others.
Now, all too often today, people create issues where they don’t exist. There’s something to be said for attracting the public’s interest, but not at the sake of others or just newsjacking a topic that has nothing to do with your audience.
Don’t create issues where they don’t exist, but don’t ignore issues where they’re obviously present.
Novelty as a News Value
Things that are unusual or bizarre are inherently newsworthy. People are interested in things they don’t understand.
For example, I once read a story about a man who broke into women’s homes while they were showering and stole their shoes. When police caught him, he had hundreds of pairs of women’s shoes hidden in his home. I’ll never forget that story. Now you probably won’t either.
Prominence as a News Value
We don’t know why we care about the lives of prominent people like musicians, movie stars, and politicians, but we do.
We care so much about what people we deem important think that Forbes estimates that there are 50 million influencers worldwide. Influencer marketing is a $22 billion industry because people buy things strangers online tell them to. Why? Because these people have an online reputation. They’re important, so they must know what we need, right?
Proximity as a News Value
We are more interested in news close to our homes because it’s more likely to impact us. For example, there’s a heat wave across the U.S. right now, but I’m more concerned about whether it will rain in Oklahoma again today. Why? Because the unusually wet season we’re having impacts me daily more than what’s happening in other states.
Secrecy as a News Value
We love a good secret! News is about whatever people want to hide. There’s a reason they want to hide it. That reason probably impacts others.
Wanting a secret is why we love the information we think we’re getting first, exclusively, or immediately. We want to be the first to know and share things.
Why News Values in Journalism Matter
The reason journalistic news values matter to journalists are obvious.
The many ways an item may be identified as having news value means nearly any subject with an affect or effect can be newsworthy. There are literally millions of stories to report each day, it is up to the journalists to determine which ones should be covered and how.
Journalists must understand that there is always something to report. It’s a lazy reporter who doesn’t bother developing these ideas.
But why do news values matter to other writers?
Think about it…
If you’re in content marketing, for example, how could you use novelty, impact, or timeliness when presenting information to your audience? Do you see how these values still apply when promoting a brand?
What about if you write fiction? Law & Order SVU is about to enter its 25th season. How many of those episodes were written loosely around something happening in the news with some of these values? How often have you read a book and thought, “This reminds me of such-and-such story.” Like when you read Ashley Flowers’ book, All Good People Here, and thought about how much it resembled the JonBenét Ramsey case.
Life imitates art and vice versa. All writing is art, which means that all information worth reading is going to have at least one (if not a combination) of the values outlined in this post.