Who is “royalty” in your community? It’s something news organizations big and small should know, because these are the people who make things happen — or not happen — in and around you. They are of the 1% that we speak of in the widening “us versus them” debate in our culture today. Their comings and goings can be real news, but their social activities and personal lives can also be news. They represent the wishful thinking of everybody else, and their stories can often prove that privilege isn’t always what its cracked up to be.
Don’t forget the paradox of prosperity — discontent increases with opportunities for acting on it.
News organizations generally don’t go near this kind of reporting. We’ve convinced ourselves that it’s just gossip — and who hasn’t wiggled a finger at those who’ve dared suggest it? And yet events like this week’s birth of “the royal baby” seem to grab the attention of everyday people in ways that go beyond almost anything else. At one point Monday, all three of these Twitter hashtags were trending at the same time in the U.S.: Kate Middleton, Buckingham Palace, and Royal Baby. After the birth, Kate Middleton, Buckingham Palace, The Royal Baby, #itsaboy and BOY were all trending.
Yeah, Terry, but that’s “real” royalty. It has historical perspective, and that’s different!
Is it really?
In 1986, I was the news director of KLTV in Tyler, Texas. The economy had hit the skids (interest rates were 14%+), and my boss was a member of the East Texas family who were among the founders of the rose industry there (second only to oil). He took me to Dallas one day, where we met with some people who studied power and influence in most American and some foreign cities. We were both quite speechless upon leaving the place, because it was the first time I’d ever come face-to-face with the idea that the country’s “shadow government” was really running things. These people do so quietly, mostly because few people really know or appreciate how organized they are.
Between jobs over the next decade or so, I worked for this company on a freelance basis from time-to-time. I was in charge of a major research project in a midwestern state, so I was taught the methodologies for coming up with a list of the powerful and actually talking with them about business development in their communities. This, I thought, was a reporter’s dream, but confidentiality was a major part of our agreement, and I wondered how it would work in a newsroom.
And so, while working as news director in North Alabama, we sent letters and a confidential voting slip with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to business leaders, whose names we had gathered from the Chamber, the Rotary Club, and the United Way. We asked each to write down the names of the top five “most powerful” people in Huntsville. We got over 70 responses, which was enough to make our own “top five” list. We sent one of our anchors to do interviews with each and ran the results as a series on the “most powerful people in Huntsville.”
We didn’t follow up the way we could have, and I suppose that’s my own fault. But think of this knowledge and what you can do with it in various ways as professional observers in your communities. Where do they live? How do they live? How are their family members connected in the social strata, and what kind of “beat” could be generated by ownership of this ongoing coverage?
The risk, of course, is pissing off somebody powerful, who then might influence advertising, but that’s been the curse of the news business for a very long time. Meanwhile, you grow in knowledge and insight into how things really work in your community. Who’s the go-to person at the right bank in town? Who runs the right law firm? How does the community chest work with regards to local “nobility?” I would argue that you could have a personal relationship with every political operative in town, but if you know nothing about how things really work you are ignorant as a news overseer in the community.
More importantly, they’ll know you’re watching them, and that is a big part of our Fourth Estate role.
But back to society-page stuff. Sure, it’s just filler fluff for newspapers, but nonethless this stuff leads everybody’s news when some athlete, actor or otherwise “famous” person does something that otherwise wouldn’t justify coverage. If your response is that there are no “famous” people in your community, I’d argue that it’s your own fault. Those of us in television news have often found ourselves among the “famous” in any community, and we like that, until it’s time to make a change or they decide to move on. Meanwhile, the audience is discovering that real people sometimes make better “famous” people, because there’s no mask involved. If reality TV has taught us nothing other than that, it’s been a net gain for culture.
So here we are now all a-Twitter over the new heir to the throne of the British empire. It’s not much of an empire anymore, and this family bloodline is more figurehead than powerful. Nevertheless, we care about them deeply and still love the ideas of princes and princesses, kings and queens. Kate is “the Duchess of Cambridge,” as mystical sounding today as it must have seemed centuries ago.
What we don’t seem to realize is that a few of the 1%, just by being such a small group, live the lives that most of the rest of us can only dream of living. The mysticism may not be there, but it still makes them newsworthy, in my feeling, and not something to ignore.
Terry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.