The practice of an inverted pyramid began during the civil war when reporters, worried that their message would get cut mid-telegraph, started with the most important information first. Outside of the war itself, there was no need for the inverted pyramid, and yet it stuck. 150 years later we still continue it, wartime or not.
Man-on-the-street interviews have a similar upbringing. A recent article by NPR states that these interviews grew out of a “historical populist streak…the country and with it, in the profession. American newspapers were the first to appeal to the masses, with the introduction of the penny press in the 1830's” to become less elite and more local.
This news approach has lost its flair with the audience, according to a study done by NPR on its listeners. 5,500 respondents say something to that effect, in addition to this being the “running theme in our polls for the last couple of years,” said audience analyst, Ben Robins.
Yet like the inverted pyramid, man-on-the-street interviews grew out of a specific media condition and still continued by the merit of tradition even after those conditions disappeared—but the idea that it mirrored the ideals of democracy is what kept it alive, connecting the masses to themselves.
The article takes two approaches to explain this shift in audience preferences.
The first is that random citizens aren’t informed as experts, taking away “valuable analysis and fact-checking.”
The second is that, on a more subconscious level, listeners and readers desire to have their opinions reinforced in light of the growing polarization in America. “Any social psychologist will tell you that all of us also operate on an intuitive level that is more powerful and often irrational,” writes Edward Schumacher-Matos, the author of the article. Furthermore, the increasing rate of news consumption prompted by the internet has “reduced our patience" for the burdensome comments of an amateur.
"I really don't care what some random dude in Florida thinks," one respondent said. They have a point.
For many, “Nothing is more frustrating for me than hearing/reading/seeing know-nothing voters such as the ones in this report expose their utter ignorance." Readers just want to “interview the candidates and party leaders, (and) fact-check to determine the accuracy of their statements.”
Neal Carruth, an NPR editor, and Schumacher-Matos have obvious qualms about the elimination of this time-honored journalistic approach. Schumacher-Matos says that in a post-Watergate era where cynicism and establishment skepticism was rampant from the failures of Vietnam, getting quotes from an everyday Joe was relieving. Carruth says that for Americans, no one knows the problem better than themselves—man-on-the-street interviews are a journalistic tool that promotes democracy.
Since this poll discovery they do not advocate the end of these interviews, but a better more pertinent use of including the “man on the street” in stories.
The interview method was created during the penny-press; getting the masses reconnected with the masses, but that's been done over and again since, especially with the internet. The desire for expertise is reflected in the many publications and blogs that are for niches and specializations.
A story standard created by a condition that hasn't existed for 80 years shouldn't be too shocking when it no longer is popular.