Journalism 202: What’s Wrong With News?

This post is an assignment for my Journalism 202 class — please keep that in mind when reading. [Prompt]

“What is wrong with news?”

This single question drives dozens of boardroom meetings, panicked water-cooler discussions, and mourning asides every day in newsrooms around the world. Subject to plummeting readership, declining consumer confidence, and growing dissatisfaction with content, newspapers are scrambling to determine new ways to collect revenue and bring in readers.

To achieve these goals, however, one must identify an answer to that question. I don’t presume to have the answer — neither do hundreds of experts far more smarter than I — but the problems are intrinsic to the changing situation in information technology.

The “Internet” is practically a cliche by this point, and can be given as the answer to nearly everything in modern life — Why are school grades dropping? Why so much voter turnout? How did this scandal break? — but nowhere does the answer carry more weight than to the question, “Why is mainstream news in the situation that it is in today?”.

Although I don’t have data to back up this hypothesis, I don’t feel that I’m far off the mark when I say that less people digest news in the “traditional” way today than they did ten or twenty years ago. Instead, people turn to “crowd-sourced” news — the latest pictures on Twitter, videos from Vine, first-hand accounts from Facebook. The role of middleman is becoming less and less unnecessary as the web of information reaches farther, and deeper, than ever before.

All this, in my opinion, requires a dramatic re-definition of what exactly news, and journalism, is. No longer is it sufficient to simply call journalism “reporting the news” and call it a day. In an era where practically everyone is just one click away from “reporting the news” themselves, journalists now have an extra step to take.

That step is adding perspective. Journalists have an advantage over “normal” Facebook and Twitter users: they are trained to seek balance, determine newsworthiness, and provide context. Rather than saying “The President died from a gunshot” — which will spread on the Internet must faster than a journalist will even begin lifting his fingers — the news should now delve into “Why was he shot? What will happen now? What does this mean?”.

Along with the role of a middleman, a journalist now takes on the extra mantle of a balancer; a decoder. How does this event fit into the worldview? How will this happening affect the tide of current events? This is something that not even hundreds of Facebook posts, or dozens of blurry Instagram photos, can provide: context. Journalists are far from out of a job, and journalism is far from dead. On the other hand, with more and more raw data being excreted into the information network every second, the role of a journalist becomes even more precious: someone to take that tide, pick out the good stuff, and explain why they’re good.

And as for me, I still stoically read the news every day. It’s an old habit, reaching back to my middle-school days when the Los Angeles Times would be delivered to my doorstep every morning. In the weeks before I unsubscribed (since I was moving across the country), I sadly noted the decreasing thickness, the loss of the plastic wrap on dewy mornings — a soggy paper is no fun to read — and, most heartbreakingly of all, the comics section was now down to only two pages of small black-and-white drawings squeezed together like sardines in a can.

Most importantly of all: I began questioning why I should pay for a mound of soggy paper when I can simply go online and read the entire thing for free?

Good content deserves good profits, but unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple when the one who should be getting those profits insists on giving them away for free. Therein lies a second problem — the public has gotten conditioned to free news, when, by the rules of capitalism and demand, it really shouldn’t.

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