Oh look! A shiny thing: Why I talk about macaroni and cheese
I’ve noticed two major themes in what makes a story popular on our website, and it’s not hard to guess what the first one is.
I talk about macaroni and cheese a lot.
It’s not because I’m a carb fiend, although I am, and it’s not because I think about food all the time, because I certainly don’t.
I talk about macaroni and cheese, and think about it a lot, because, like many other reporters, I think about the news a lot, and “macaroni and cheese” is a handy metaphor for a specific type of news, coined by writer John W. Miller on the “Moundsville” blog.
As community editor here at The Globe, I spend a fair amount of time studying our analytics, which can tell us what stories our audiences like to read, chiefly either through counting the number of times a story is viewed, or by measuring how much engagement a story gets.
I’ve noticed two major themes in what makes a story popular on our website, and it’s not hard to guess what the first one is. I usually call it “mayhem,”which is my shorthand for any violence, crime or occurrence usually considered to be negative. “Mayhem” is sort of a one-word summation of the old “If it bleeds, it leads” saying.
It’s also not a great way to run a website. It can be really depressing, and worse, it can also leave readers with the mistaken, frightening and sometimes dangerous impression that things are terrible and getting worse everywhere, all the time.
The second theme can serve as an antidote of sorts to the first: macaroni and cheese journalism.
“Mac n’ cheese journalism,” as Miller put it, is what people really want:
"Stories about their neighbors that aren’t puff or hit pieces, but not investigative stories that take six months to report, either. The write-up of the high school quarterback’s workout routine. The five-phone call story about the new hotel outside of town. The profile of the new centenarian on her 100th birthday.
"Solid 600-word stories about their communities they can read on their phone or computer every day. These stories aren’t winning any Pulitzers, but they’re also impossible for amateur citizen-journalists to generate. They require professionals, and they build an audience, and they build trust. Call it mac n’ cheese journalism," Miller wrote.
On its own, macaroni and cheese does not a nutritional news diet make, but it’s nourishing and comforting, and it’s a good thing to incorporate into the menu. Since mac n' cheese is usually written from a positive viewpoint about people in the community, it also serves as a balance for mayhem stories.
During and after the contentious 2016 and 2020 elections and the COVID-19 pandemic, many people started to find that a constant diet of mayhem-related stories had a negative impact on their mental health, and some started shying away from news completely as a result.
That’s not a good way to stay informed, but it’s also completely understandable.
Macaroni and cheese journalism can help by offering those readers the chance to read something positive that is still relevant, and, I hope, decrease the perception that everything is awful.
Everything is not awful.
We’ll still write about the mayhem, because that’s real too, and it’s important to learn about problems so solutions can be devised and applied.
And we’ll still write about the old-school, traditional news staples — city council and county board meetings, road work, ball games, and tiny children doing adorable tiny-child things.
But when we get tired of being afraid, tired of being sad or just plain tired, it may well be time to say: Please pass the macaroni and cheese.