CoverStory

So much media, so little news

Consumers are overloaded with information yet seem to know less than ever about current events

By Peter Funt

A group of daily papers in New England calls its electronic edition No Inky Fingers. The point, of course, is that with digital news nothing rubs off on readers’ hands. But what’s rubbing off on their brains?

The disappearance of what could be called the mental rub-off effect is partly to blame for the fact that many Americans are overloaded with information yet seem to know less than ever about current events. As news packaging shifts from general interest to specific interest, it has become difficult for mass audiences to rub up against the news — even if accidentally.

Not long ago, most American homes received at least one daily newspaper. Idly turning the pages to find the sports section or comics, readers couldn’t help but glance at the news headlines, and bits of information tended to rub off.

Television, before cable and satellite, was arranged so that most entertainment stopped at the dinner hour and again before bedtime for general-interest news broadcasts. Turning the dial or waiting for the weather forecast, viewers couldn’t help but sample a bit of hard news.

And think how radio used to be. Until partial deregulation of broadcasting during the Reagan administration three decades ago, the government basically required stations to run news or public service programming — so whether you were listening to rock, country, or classical, every hour programs paused for a few minutes of news. My first job out of college was in the news department at WABC Radio in New York back when it was still a rock 'n' roll powerhouse. Despite the likelihood that our audience resented it, we interrupted Cousin Brucie and the other DJs every hour for five minutes of no-nonsense news. Some listeners switched stations, but most stuck around — and the news rubbed off.

Walking down the streets of most cities back in the day, news was always nearby. It was stacked up at newsstands and even shouted by vendors. People carried transistor radios whose messages resonated in the pre-earphone era.

By contrast, today’s boutique media allow many people to skip news altogether. You can set your Internet home page so that it serves up only what you’re interested in. You can watch video via Hulu or Netflix and never encounter a smidgen of news. You can listen 24/7 to satellite radio or other digital music services and not be bothered by reportage from the outside world.

Even consumers who say they get “news” online or by watching cable channels are often referring to something that isn’t really news at all. Some cable “news” channels devote virtually all of prime time to nonstop opining for liberal or conservative agendas, making little or no effort to summarise the major news of the day.

Many television producers and an increasing number of newspaper editors mistakenly believe that since the day’s hard news is readily available around-the-clock from so many sources, it’s no longer in their commercial interest, or the public interest, to serve it up themselves.

When I asked a college media class of 40 students if they read a daily newspaper, two hands went up. When I clarified that online newspaper sites qualified, three more hands were raised. Yet everyone in the class claimed to be at least generally aware of the news. I was told that “important stuff” gets relayed by text, tweet, or other social media.

Several students stressed that internet sites they favoured are “free”. While the attraction of no-cost media is easy to understand, the content gulf separating free and paid news media is widening. This leads to another troubling condition of our times: a society of information haves and have-nots. As quality websites erect online pay walls, and as newspapers implement steep price increases for their printed editions, there is a serious danger that meaningful journalism will become a luxury that many Americans simply can't afford.

A few years ago, the Knight Foundation issued a report on public access to digital information. A key finding: "In a democracy, the very idea of second-class citizenship is unacceptable; yet, for many, second-class information citizenship is looming."

In its eighteen-month study, the Knight panel found a paradox: while digital information is expanding nationally and globally, the volume and quality of local and regional information is shrinking. The study concluded that not all Americans and their local communities are being served equally in the digital world.

When the Knight data are layered against shifts in the newspaper industry, the severity of the situation becomes clearer. The vast majority of daily papers serve small and medium-sized communities, and when staff and pages are cut the result is usually less local coverage. Although several notable attempts have been made to replace this lost information with local online news — such as the short-lived web version of Denver's defunct Rocky Mountain News — far more local coverage is disappearing each year than is being replaced in the digital arena.

Remember, too, that even “free” internet content comes at a significant price for the consumer. The cost of owning a computer and connecting to the internet is fairly substantial, as is monthly cable or satellite TV.

Meanwhile, many newspapers are raising prices so steeply that they are redefining themselves as elite products rather than mass media. On 30 September, USA Today doubled its cover price from one dollar to two. The paper’s circulation had fallen by 8 percent in the last reporting period and, rather than fight for readers with improved content, its response was to double the price! When USA Today was launched in 1982, its 25-cent cover price was 7.5 per cent of the federal minimum wage; its new price is 27.5 per cent of the current minimum wage. The issue isn’t whether minimum-wage earners should purchase USA Today, it’s that American newspapers are quickly becoming unaffordable.

As to electronic alternatives, some 20 per cent of American adults — about 60 million people—do not have access to the Internet, and about 5 per cent do not receive any form of television transmission. Not surprisingly, the percentages are higher among poorer Americans.

In summing up its analysis of the information gap, the Knight study warned, "How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities."

I assume that by “we” the Knight organisation refers to journalists and the companies controlling mass media. So how are we reacting to the information gap? In addition to laying off staff and closing bureaus — which may be financially unavoidable — too often the reaction is to emulate the approach of social and other digital media. Conventional news outlets, enamoured of Facebook and Twitter and eager to join their conversations, increasingly give space and credibility to online chatter that ordinarily wouldn’t deserve either.

In December 2012, for example, when a nurse at a London hospital hanged herself after being victimised by a phone prank originating at an Australian radio station, there was a torrent of opinion online. ABC News plucked two tweets from among thousands and ran them full-screen. One, aimed at the radio hosts, said, “You scumbag, I hope you get what’s coming to you!” The other warned, “You have blood on your hands now.”

Had such comments from the general public reached ABC News by any other method — from email to carrier pigeon — there is virtually no chance they would have been deemed newsworthy. Indeed, they probably would have been viewed as incendiary. Yet mainstream reporters increasingly treat social media as part of the story, conflating media with messages.

On television as well as on newspaper websites, anonymous tweets — sometimes in endless crawls at the bottom of the screen — have become staples. They fall short of the basic standards for author identification that most publications require for letters to the editor.

Free media are often caught in a swirl of whatever is “trending”. One day’s front-page headlines on AOL: “Grandma Goes to Walmart, Vanishes” and “I Ate to Scare Classmates Away”. That same day, CNN.com’s top items were flesh-eating bugs and “Horse bolts into ocean, swims 2 miles”. On the conservative Drudge Report: “Rocks Found at Beach Ignite in Woman’s Pocket.”

This is now the standard stuff of top internet sites as well as cable TV, broadcast TV morning shows, and, of course, local TV newscasts. Even many of the most reputable news organisations, such as the Los Angeles Times, play it straight on their printed front pages but turn frisky online. The flesh-eating bugs and burning rocks — plus several celebrity items — were front-page news on the Times’ website.

One major reason for this condition involves the difference between serving a stable, subscription-based audience versus non-paid, transient customers. News organisations that charge for content, especially via ongoing subscriptions, face less pressure to woo readers with the most eye-opening developments of the moment. Free media, and publications largely reliant on single-copy sales, are in a constant struggle for attention.

Another factor is the 24/7 pace of modern communication. “Breaking news” is the mantra of cable coverage — even if much of it is hardly newsworthy and is barely breaking. A truck in flames on a Midwest interstate might qualify as breaking news on national cable — especially if there’s video — but would never appear in a summary of the day’s most important developments.

The confounding part of this is that we're in the midst of an information explosion — a virtual supermarket of news options — and Americans are stuffing themselves with empty calories. Part of the explanation is that consumers have so many choices just a click away that programmers don’t dare bore them with too much serious content. The scene at the checkout aisle, where tabloids scream for attention, is now spread across the media landscape.

Many sites run lists of which stories are getting the most hits. This, of course, tends to drive even more readers to those stories, which are popular primarily because they are popular.  A new tool in the nation's newsrooms is an electronic tote board that provides minute-to-minute details of what's hot online. Low click counts send editors scurrying for stories or photos that will grab readers' attention.

This contributes to an inversion of the traditional process by which news is disseminated. Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom is familiar with the most basic debate among journalists: Should we give the public what it wants to know, or what it ought to know? The best prescription has always been a combination of both.

However, the line that separates those considerations is moving — both because journalists are succumbing to competitive pressure, and because consumers are taking it upon themselves to alter the equation. Thanks to modern media and devices, they have the tools with which to change it.

The standard pushback is that there’s more information out there than ever before, and that interested consumers want to sort through it to find the news. Again: Want? Or ought?

The sad truth is that while some of us are naturally curious about what we don’t know, an increasing number of readers and viewers want only reinforcement of what they already know. While it’s not the job of media to force-feed news to an uninterested audience, the system worked better when some news and information just happened to rub off.

Personally, I’ve always relied upon great editors and great broadcasters to tell me what they think is important each day. I’m determined to form my own opinions, but I’m not so audacious as to think I know what’s important without professional guidance.

One of my favorite news slogans is one used for decades by the Scripps newspaper chain: “Give light and the people will find their own way”. Yet in modern communications we seem to give off more heat than light, leaving too many information-loaded consumers stumbling around in the dark.