I often wonder about the future of news journalism. I’ve been a news reader for a long time, and in the past 5 or so years since I gave up my TV, most of my news has come from online sources (a lot from my iPhone). On a daily basis, I might catch a headline on New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, or HuffPost. And who can ignore SFGate, CNN or People.com, places I visit if when I am bored or want some mindless fodder for the water cooler, so to speak. Facebook used to be my go-to social network, but now it’s exclusively Twitter, where I follow journalists alongside comedians, entrepreneurs, educators and celebrities. On a given day I probably spend 2 or 3 hours reading online. When I told my aunt that I read longform pieces on my iPhone, she was shocked. That’s life in the digital age. And just because I do that does not make me a “digital native”. It just makes me someone who likes to read a lot using a different medium.
My interest in news is not due to the whole FOMO phenomenon, where I might only seek out news to satiate my growing hunger for connection or to suppress my fear of not being part of something ‘important’. No, it’s really about curiosity and learning. I enjoy reading, learning new things, exploring new topics and generally discovering trivia bits along the way (especially movies and TV – thank you, IMDb). Another reason is pertinent to my identity as a cultural observer. I like to observe what goes on in the world and make connections, form links from one news item or event to the next. “Systems thinking”, if you will. Shutting off access to news would really only help me in the short-term. Ultimately, I feel that understanding the world, and all its craziness, is a fundamental part of the human experience, and media is both a facilitator and corrupter of this process.
Why a corrupter, you ask? Anyone can tell you the devolution story of the once-heralded nightly news anchor, now represented by derivative, 24/7, MSNBC and FoxNews drones/talking heads. The privatization and commodification of news, along with the consolidation and merger of media companies, have together created a monolithic, giant news monster machine, churning out content to reward advertisers and punish our eardrums. Yes, these companies need to make money, but their nosedive into cynical broadcasting, which implies that their viewers are dumb, gullible, and shallow, is a much more sinister tactic. The idea that news is just a bi-product of the crusty layer of sugary, salty junk food otherwise known as ratings, makes us into its mindless consumers. Shop till you drop? How about Watch till you go blind! We are none the wiser. Ok, maybe I am getting a little too Network-y here. But still, you get the point. It’s a mess.
Broadcast media aside, what lies ahead for online news? Writers of headlines have long perfected the SEO amygdala hijack to seduce clicks and garner eyeballs on the page. Is online news a click factory – where clicks and time-on-site are the new ratings – or is there space for thoughtful journalism? Well, it’s a mix of both. As Micah Sifry so poignantly put it, the media are the “immune system of democracy”, and yet misinformation [I’ll add in fatuous content], much like bugs and viruses, is “with us to stay”. We can try to diet, filter and block it – treat the problem like most medical problems are treated, after the fact. Or, we can prevent it through strengthening the health of the systems from the get-go. We can’t remove the Honey Boo Boo’s from the world, but we can perhaps mitigate our exposure to them by seeking out content that is thought provoking, critical, in-depth, and validated, or by spreading ideas that break down “common sense” myths while creating new paradigms. This cycle can’t go on forever. Clicks, ratings and dollars will cease to flow if the cycle continues to oppress those who feed it. The public deserves better.
The future of news could be a far cry from what it portends today. As a reader, I’m hopeful.