What Can Nonprofit News Outlets Learn from The Colbert Report?

You may have heard that "conservative" television commentator Stephen Colbert recently retired from his nightly Comedy Central show after a successful nine-year run.

This retirement has triggered a great deal of reflection among real journalists who were nonetheless intrigued, and in many ways envious, of the approach adopted by Colbert and his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart.

As anyone who has watched either of these shows can attest, this fake news can be nonetheless informative. Producers spend a tremendous amount of time researching, getting their facts straight, and digging up old videos to show a given politician's hypocrisy or duplicity. As Colbert himself notes, "Satire is parody with a point."

Therefore, it's not surprising that many Americans get their news from these outlets. In fact, this astute piece in the Harvard Business Review revealed these following nuggets:

  • A 2004 Pew study found that shows like The Daily Show rivaled traditional broadcast news as sources of campaign information for young adults.
  • An Indiana University study found that The Daily Show’s coverage of the 2004 campaign was as substantive as network news.
  • A 2007 Pew survey found that regular viewers of Stewart’s and Colbert’s shows were much better informed than the national average and were even better informed than those who rely on traditional news outlets.

The success of these shows speaks to a deep cynicism and frustration with the current political reality, and it is something that nonprofit journalists need to address, short of resorting to difficult-to-execute satire.

This thought occurred to us after stumbling upon news that the Knight Foundation awarded a $245,000 grant to the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University. The grant will help create a pilot program for a Center for Innovation in Digital Media and help students at the HU journalism school to "find new ways to relay information over digital platforms, including social media — reflecting the changing landscape of how people consume media content."

Specifically, the grant will be used for strategic partnerships with media corporations, digital media research projects, and producing business plans. Perhaps more tellingly, the grant will also be used to produce apps.

To that end, this grant seems less about turning students onto the field of journalism, and more about leveraging their talents and social media savvy to reach their peers. If this sounds familiar, it's a principle that's central to Knight's drive towards what they call "community platform journalism."

Which brings us back to Stephen Colbert. His show was particularly successful with the younger demographic because it was able to effectively harness social media, viral videos, and other tools that are popular with the kids. In fact, according to Pew, The Colbert Report claimed the highest percentage of audience viewers in the 18-29 year range, at 43 percent. And guess who was number two? Yup, The Daily Show, at 39 percent.

Who knew fake news could be so, well, real?