Friday, September 18, 2009

The future of news

When the last print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hit the presses in March, there was a great deal of lamenting that presaged the end of an era. Perhaps it did end, 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 called reporters but “news gatherers”. But while their technical skills are new, their investigative ones are not. And both are still 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 it not earning a cent in ads. Twitter may not be a viable business yet but with its short, sharp bursts of information, conversation, and real-time search facility, it is an ideal carrier of news. It is no wonder politicians, journalists and PR people love it.

But 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. Indeed the Tikopia word for “news” was the same as the word for “speech”. According to news historian Mitchell Stephens the Tikopia experience is a universal one. Stephens says news can best be described as 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 our news is mostly mediated by mass communication. Inventions such as 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 exactly sure what will take its place. While the people formerly known as the audience now seek a new label to descibe them, intermediaries can still play a vital sense-making role. It remains the primary job of journalists to produce and disseminate information about contemporary affairs of public interest and importance.

But as everyone knows, 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 men were egged on by their editors in a newspaper arms race. There was no increase in crime, just in reporting of it. But before long panicked New Yorkers believed they were living amid a crime epidemic. The embarrassed police commissioner (and later President) Teddy Roosevelt knew both Steffens and Riis and called them into his office to explain what was going on. He told them to stop the nonsense. They agreed and New York’s crime wave disappeared as suddenly as it started.

The moral of that story 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 it is also capable of trivialising or distorting what is important. The media that produce the news 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. It could be argued that news is what makes the media such a privileged social institution. Newspapers may be disappearing but their influence remains vast as they became a prototype of all media that followed it. As noted by the name, news was their central ingredient and radio and television were modelled on the newspapers with news as central to their mission. This may be changing in the 21st century, however. News is now regularly outrated by sport and reality television and radio stations cut costs by hubbing their news or avoiding it altogether. Meanwhile the most-clicked stories on websites barely qualify as news at all.

But the human need for genuine 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 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 questions of who pays for it and how are so important.

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