The future of news

When the last print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hit the presses in March, there was much lamenting it presaged the end of an era. But it also heralded in a new one. Though 160 of its 180 editorial staff lost their jobs, those journalists that stayed were re-trained and multi-skilled. They are now no longer reporters but “news gatherers”. While their technical skills are new, their investigative ones are not and both are required in the 21st century.

There are many shiny tools at the disposal of the new news gatherers. The attraction of Twitter is that it answers the fundamental question “What are you doing?” Its exponential growth has led to a company valuation of one billion dollars despite not earning a cent in ads. Twitter may not yet be a viable business but with its short, sharp bursts of information, conversation, and real-time search facility, it is an ideal carrier of news. No wonder politicians, journalists and PR people love it.Twitter is not just the preserve of insiders and the need for news is universal. News speaks to something deep within humans. When the anthropologist Raymond Frith went to the Western Pacific island of Tikopia, he found a Polynesian society with a great thirst for news. Whenever two inhabitants met, they spent most of their conversation swapping news. The Tikopia word for “news” was the same as the word for “speech”. According to news historian Mitchell Stephens the Tikopia experience is universal. Stephens says news is one of our senses. He calls it a social sense that leaps over synapses between people and provides awareness of the world.

In western society news is mostly mediated by mass communication. The printing press and television have each transformed the way news is told. Now the Internet is changing it again, providing an almost instantaneous global feedback system. The old one-way broadcasting system is dying but no-one is sure what will take its place. While the people formerly known as the audience now seek a new label, intermediaries can still play a vital sense-making role. The primary job of journalists is still to produce and disseminate information about contemporary affairs of public interest and importance.

But journalists don’t just interpret news; they also create it. In New York in the 1890s a young ambitious reporter named Lincoln Steffens got involved in a contest with a rival named Jacob Riis to report on sensational and salacious crimes. Both were egged on by their editors in a newspaper arms race. There was no increase in crime, just in reporting of it. Before long panicked New Yorkers believed there was a crime epidemic. The embarrassed police commissioner (and later President) Teddy Roosevelt called Steffens and Riis into his office and told them to stop the nonsense. New York’s crime wave disappeared as suddenly as it started.

The moral is, as communication scholar Michael Schudson points out, is not that the journalists made stuff up, but that they created an impression which people believed and responded to. News is vital to the democratic process and a sense of community but can trivialise or distort what is important. The media play a wide variety of role: supporting the establishing order, picking holes in the established order, being a forum for political debate and acting as a battleground for elites.

The media is itself part of the elite. News is what makes the media such a privileged social institution. Newspapers may be disappearing but their influence remains vast as a prototype of all media that followed it. Radio and television were modelled on the newspapers with news central to their mission. This may be changing in the 21st century. News is now regularly outrated by sport and reality shows. Stations cut costs by hubbing their news or avoiding it altogether. The most-clicked stories on websites barely qualify as news at all.

The human need for news remains even if the commercial media think they can no longer make money out of it. And its social value is also unchanged. Steffens may have created a crime wave but society depends on news of violations of the law to reinforce their understanding of it and to fear punishments if they transgress it. Humans are hardwired to be interested in portents, anomalies, and spicy happenings. The Internet is an immediate, crowded and complex place, but has not changed the nature of news nor has it lessened the need for news gatherers in a functioning democracy. It is gradually replacing television as the new home of awareness of the world. This is why the question of who pays for it and how are so important.

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