The News Ain\’t What It Used to Be

Today, Online Journalism Review published an excellent analysis by my friend and colleague Nora Paul, director of UMN’s Institute for New Media Studies.

In ‘New News’ retrospective: Is online news reaching its potential?, Paul revisits perspectives offered a decade ago at the Poynter Institute’s first New News Seminar about where online journalism might be heading, vs. where we’re at today.

She focuses on the outcome of these early prognostications, and others:

  • The limitless newshole (the opportunity to present all information gathered)
  • Additional depth and context (“Give me more!”)
  • Hyperlinking from and between news stories
  • Increased reader-reporter interaction, via e-mail, discussion forums, and live chats.

Paul notes that for the most part, news organizations have not pursued these opportunites to the extent hoped. Her exploration of the hows and whys behind this outcome are well worth reading.

Personally, I suspect that one of the unacknowledged reasons behind the news industry’s lack of vigor in pursuing these opportunities lies in how inadequately the news business has been defining and delivering news…

MUCH MORE THAN TECHNOLOGY HAS CHANGED

With the advent of the internet, I think we’re seeing quite clearly that the medium is the message.

The existing news industry developed its own processes, goals, and norms during an era dominated by mass media (print and broadcast). The constraints of mass-media business and technology demanded that news be handled from the top down. This meant that “news” had to be identified by editors, gathered by reporters, and then fed via a one-way system to mass audiences, with little or no feedback potential.

Such a dictatorial approach to the dissemination of current information is, I think, largely contrary to the nature of human communication, psychology, and society. For more than a century, the predominance of mass media has probably harmed public discourse as much (if not more) as it’s helped. Especially in terms of “news” – how we follow, interpret, and influence what’s happening in our world.

The internet seems to resonate more with human nature – how we are as individuals and in groups. It’s intensely, fundamentally interconnected – not top-down. It works best if actively explored rather than passively absorbed. And, I think, it’s exposing just how artificial the mass-media approach to news can be.

That’s good. I think it’s about time we overcame our collective mental and social atrophy.

The mass-media approach to news was a useful set of societal training wheels for large-scale communication. But I think we’ve outgrown it. Technology finally is catching up with (and catching on to) the true nature of human communciation. It’s time to move on – and to redefine what’s “news” in the process.

I think Paul hints at that in this passage:

“The harshest reality that news organizations have to face is that readers are finding each other, cutting out the ‘middle man.’ The lackluster support and catchall nature of news sites’ forum areas have sent most dedicated posters to sites where the community they are seeking is much richer and livelier. Disease sufferers, tropical plant growers, music fans, political polemicists, tree-huggers, and do-it-yourselfers have all found places for conversation, advice, and support — and it isn’t the news site. It has been said that the role of the newspaper is to get a community into conversation with itself. Well, the newspaper’s hoped-for role has been abdicated to any number of online discussion areas.”

The question for the news industry then becomes: Now that we understand more how and why the media landscape is really changing, what should news organizations be doing?

How should they change – in large ways and small?

How can they embrace and enhance the emerging reality of the news?

Have they outlived their usefulness?

…I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

One thought on “The News Ain\’t What It Used to Be

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  1. Great post, loved the points you made. I’ll add a couple of my own. I see mass media as a behemoth that is rapidly outliving its usefullness. There is too much bureaucracy inherent in the power structure (and too many people invested in not losing their perceived “power”) for most mass media agencies to move and change with the tides.

    I saw a similar phenomena when I worked at Eastman Kodak in their internet marketing division. The “old guard” at Kodak was so invested in their belief that film would always dominate and that Kodak’s brand loyalty would help it survive the coming digital age, that we in our division saw manager after manager decry the coming age of digital as just a fad that would never replace film. They didn’t get that the consumers who trusted them for film wouldn’t trust them for digital the way they would trust companies they already associated with technology. The consumer (film) division and the digital division did so much infighting for “turf” that they missed market opportunities. The longer time-to-market project management that Kodak had developed for film products bogged down digital development, which was changing rapidly. The result? When I started working at Kodak in 1996, the stock was in the triple digits. Right now? 32.23. It’s just too large of a bureaucracy, with too many managers, to move and change as swiftly as smaller companies that “get it”.

    Mass media is already taking a nosedive. A lot of people don’t trust that the media is as fair and unbiased as it should be, and are turning to grassroots sources for their news. I’m much more likely to check out Andrew Sullivan and Instapundit to see what’s going on than the New York Times, and largely because of the interactive nature of the discussions. You get multiple points of view that give you different perspectives than just reading what one editor wants you to hear.

    The interactive nature of news blogs also allows the site owners to be more in touch with their readership and to learn, over time, what “news” their readers want to hear. Blogs are also redefining “news”. The speciality sites like Exploding Cigar (http://www.explodingcigar.com) and Wonkette (http://www.wonkette.com) are finding niche audiences previously underserved by mainstream media. And then we could talk about how things like TIVO, satellite radio, and the internet are changing traditional advertising. But that’s a post in and of itself.