How is news like a symphony?

In today’s media world, you could think of journalists as players in a sort of “news orchestra,” alongside all the bloggers and other users who are generating content. But that’s not the similarity I have in mind. Stick with me here.

At last week’s Phil Meyer symposium, former Knight Foundation officer John Bare drew clear parallels between journalism and symphonic orchestras. Lots of classical music lovers have no relationship with their local orchestra, he said, just as many news junkies have no relationship with their local newspaper [or TV station]. People can listen to music at home, so why do they ever come to the concert hall? People can read news online, so why would they buy a newspaper or turn on the TV news?

Knight Foundation research discovered that the most powerful thing to get someone to go to hear the symphony was to have a friend invite them.

Sixteen percent of potential classical consumers identify themselves as “initiators” — people who instinctively organize cultural outings for their friends. But nearly 60 percent identify themselves as “responders” — people who are more likely to attend cultural outings if someone else invites them.

What does this have to do with news? Well, consider how younger people get the news these days. Market researcher Jane Buckingham told the New York Times that a college student in a recent focus group put it this way: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” How? Most likely by way of a message or forwarded story from a friend who’s a news initiator–someone like Bare.

It’s about me gaining credibility with that friend. I’m not an opinion leader, I’m the social lubricant of the interaction. I’m throwing the newspaper in the driveway for these people.

As we noted last week, news organizations need to rethink how they connect with their audience. And they need to figure out exactly who these initiators are and how to reach them, because those people are the ones who will spread our good journalism around. The data may already exist. Who’s forwarding your stories? What can you learn about them?