The past, present and future of news

internet lynchings fact-based reporting

This post is like X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, except with printing presses and the web instead of Hugh Jackman.

We’ll go back in time, return to the present and into the future. Here’s how it started: for eons, news only traveled as fast as you could run, unless you had a horse or an army of trained pigeons. (Yes, this was a thing. Rather brilliant, really.)

Back in the 1700s, newspapers from London and Paris were put on sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic, and people lined up and paid real money to read news that was months old. Didn’t matter. It was new to them.

Our parents and grandparents used to wake up in the morning, pad outside in their bare feet and get the morning paper to read with their coffee. (Sidenote: I still do this every day at five a.m. It is glorious.)

News was defined by HOW you got it, with each medium having natural advantages and disadvantages.

If you’re a journalism major, you know the saying: “The medium is the message.” Each medium was like a powerful kingdom. The other kingdoms didn’t tread too deeply into enemy territory, because they tended to get slaughtered.

Here’s how it looked:

  • Words: Newspapers were the king of words. Sure, books and magazine also contained words, but newspapers are like a good buddy staying up all night, bookmarking and printing the best stories from huffpost, reddit and fark, then sending a minion to deliver this fat packet of word goodness on your front porch before you even woke up. Newspapers were like magic. Still are.
  • Photos: Magazines rocked photos better than any other medium, with glossy, full-definition stuff newspapers and books can’t easily match. National Geographic became famous for showing us wildlife and landscapes from places we’ll never visit. TIME magazine gave us serious photojournalism. PEOPLE filled our need for glamour shots of actors, politicians and reality TV stars who really aren’t stars but get treated like they have talent anyway.
  • Audio: Nobody could touch radio for spreading audio around the planet. It wasn’t even close. Another advantage of radio was speed, since they could send out news bulletins at the speed of light, doing laps around newspapers and magazines.
  • Film: Television had all of the speed advantages of radio plus the power of moving images, which our brain processes 50,000 times faster than words. Film was the atomic bomb of media.

That was then. Today, the news business is getting turned upside down and inside out by the Series of Tubes, which is changing everything about the news business.

Newspapers started struggling first, with two-newspaper cities turning into one-paper monopolies and big chains going into debt to buy up the competition. At least 15,000 journalists lost their jobs during the newspaper apocalypse. In the year 2013, Kevin Costner resorted to traveling this journalistic wasteland to delivering the news himself, on horseback, to save America.

These days, radio and television stations are getting hit, too, as more and more people get their content digitally. They’re getting content on their phone, more and more, or listening to podcasts as they drive instead of reading physical papers, watching this thing Grandpa called “television” or tuning into radio stations.

Here’s a take on why all this is happening and what it means for news junkies like me.

1) The fierce urgency of now

You can’t spell “news” without “new.” And the internet isn’t about patience.

Back in the day, you had to wait for radio stories, the 6 p.m. news or tomorrow’s paper to find out what happens next.

It was like the night before Christmas, every day. You anticipated it, then you got it.

Today, you get mad if hitting Refresh doesn’t give you something new about the score of the NFC West playoffs or the latest updated count for election results in Kentucky.

Not that long ago, I used to get election results as a reporter by getting in my car and driving to the place where they counted ballots. You spent the time talking to people and hearing all sorts of rumors and gossip instead of mashing Refresh while inventing new swear words.

News junkies today are like the famous experiment of putting a rat in a cage with a lever that gave them dope. They pressed the lever all the time until they died.

Being a news junkie isn’t fatal. But it’s less satisfying once you’ve been trained to expect instant gratification. Nobody today will wait for tomorrow’s paper to find out the score of last night’s game or what movies are playing Friday. Not when every human being has a smart phone in their pocket.

People want the news right now. And they’ll get it.

This has naturally pushed every existing company, whether they’re a newspaper, magazine, radio or TV station, to move big to the web or die from irrelevance.

Except almost everyone made a fatal decision when they put their content on the web.

2) Paying the bills is sort of important, and impossible if you give everything away for free

Say you own a pizza restaurant that also delivers in a small town. Let’s go crazy and say you’re the only pizza choice. It’s a happy, profitable monopoly.

But hey, the internet is the next big thing. Let’s put our menu on the web, to make it easier for people to order. Great! Then let’s allow people to order online using a form instead of calling up and having a teenager read you all the toppings for the third time. Beautiful. Business is up. Now let’s fully embrace the web: if you walk in the door, or call on the phone, a sausage and mushroom pie costs $22. Do it online, though, and we’ll deliver your pizza for free.

Yeah. Not wicked smart. That business would die off in a few months.

I lived through this as a young reporter. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters saw the internet as the Next Big Thing and started putting all their content online for free. Most still do. And no, banner ads don’t make up for losing out on actual subscribers and full-color Safeway ads. Some companies smart and started putting in paywalls. Except 90 percent of paywalls are insanely easy to get around, either by clearing your cookies or using a different browser.

This is part of the reason why so many mainstream media companies got into trouble. It’s hard to pay the bills when the most precious thing you do is given away to readers for “exposure” in the hopes of getting mythical Web Money while you still have to pay the bills with actual dollars.

Companies are still trying to figure this out. It’s especially hard with so many people getting news via smart phones now. How do you pay the bills with mobile ads is a huge, huge question for every media outlet today. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet answer.

car vs reporter

Think of the reporter as the news business and the car as the internet during its toddler days, when it was still learning to drive.

3) Generalists lose, specialists win

Traditionally, a reporter might write a crime story on Monday, a city hall piece on Tuesday and spend the rest of the week on a big Sunday story the painkiller epidemic.

There are benefits to having well-rounded reporters who can cover just about anything. Today, though, specialists are winning.

If you really want the latest and greatest stories about the NBA Finals, you go to sites like ESPN for stories and video done by people who cover the NBA for a living. Same thing for politics, mountain biking or anything else today. Somewhere on the internet, there are reporters, blogs, reddit subgroups and 5,492 other things entirely dedicated to your passion, whether it’s Marvel movies, toy trains or knitting hats for kittens.

Just made up that bit about cats in knit hats. Completely random.

Let’s check if it’s a thing.

Well, that didn’t take long. Hear me now and believe me later in the week: knit hats for cats is definitely a thing.

knit hats for cats

And to be honest, if there are enough people buying books and reading about the newest patterns for knitting hats for cats (and dogs), then if you’re into it, this is a niche where you’re not competing with the other 3,982 reporters and blogs covering politics and the 54,012 folks competing to scoop each other with news about the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, UFC and other pro sports that make billions of dollars while being required to have three-letter acronyms.

That’s the beauty of the web: the entire population of the third rock from the sun is competing to provide the fastest and shiniest content, all for you.

It’s also the danger of the Series of Tubes, if you’re one of the billions of people providing content: it’s not just other beat reporters and experts you’re competing with, but every amateur and fan with a smart phone and a Twitter account, any one of them capable and willing to steal your scoop and eat your lunch.

This is why a lot of general-purpose reporters got sidelined if they didn’t find a special and profitable niche.

4) Local news is an enduring specialty

On the reverse side of the last point, there will never be worldwide competition to provide local coverage of your city council, school board or sports.

People who live in Waco, Texas, do not care one bit about your high school football team’s massive rivalry with the Bobcats of Belfair, or whether the county commissioners in your back yard are fighting about whether to rezone five acres of old man Johnson’s dairy farm from agriculture to residential so he can subdivide that thing and use the money to retire to Lake Tahoe.

Your local press has a monopoly and always will.

This is why a lot of weeklies are doing fine while many dailies in bigger cities are hurting. The dailies are still trying to give people a little of everything: world news, national news, state news, sports, Dear Abby, comics. The weeklies don’t have to pretend to cover the world. They don’t have the staff for it and never will.

Community weeklies and radio stations can focus on one thing: local news. They may change how they distribute it, and might move online rather than have things printed. But they’ve got a niche that will never be in danger.

5) People crave depth, substance and science

It’s a myth that people today are shallow and won’t read anything meaningful.

Sure, people want to skim the big stuff, and they’ll give up fast and stop reading something that isn’t interesting.

Yet they do want to drill down and go deep.

The Economist only comes out once a week, so you’d think it’s old news. Except it goes into a level of detail you won’t get elsewhere, and has a different style. Instead of hiring journalists and making them cover different beats, hoping they’ll become experts, it hires experts and trains them to be journalists. Then it sets them loose. And it’s amazing.

Every year when I teach writing to college interns, I ask how many people read a daily newspaper, and a few hands go up, which makes me have a sad. Because if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint. On a whim, I started asking how many read The Economist, thinking it would be a grand total of zero. Turns out half of them do, partly because professors got them doing it but partly because it’s completely different and insanely great.

There are online sources like The Economist that drill all the way down into all sorts of topics.

The blog fivethirtyeight shows that numbers, data and science matter whether you’re talking about politics, sports, economics or war. There are thousands of sites like that, often run by some of the biggest experts and scientists in their field. It’s one of the great achievements of the web. You couldn’t find the Manhattan phone book and randomly call one the world’s most famous economist. He or she wouldn’t talk to you. But she might reply to a comment on his blog, or chat you up on Twitter.

6) Who do you trust?

Today, anybody with a blog or Twitter account can pass themselves off as an expert, author or pundit. It can be hard to tell the difference unless you spend time researching them.

Before, you had to have real credentials to get quoted in the media, or to get hired at a major newspaper, radio or television station.

And it’s completely true that most people tend to keep going back to news sources that confirm their worldview, because that’s naturally comforting. The reverse—progressives trying to get informed about world events by listening to Rush or conservatives turning to NPR during a two-hour commute—could be entertaining in short bursts. Long term, it might put people in therapy.

But that sort of thing isn’t new. There are still newspapers with names like “The Kalamazoo Democrat” or the “West Hampshire Republican” because those were got started targeting those partisan audiences. FOX News and MSNBC are the equivalent today on cable news.

The bigger downside is with so many outlets, it’s hard to know which ones are credible. Especially when there’s so many people breaking news on Twitter or blogs who aren’t trained journalists.

A journalist could get fired if they published rumors, lies or conspiracy theories instead of facts and news. They’re like honeybees with barbed stingers: you only get to use that stinger once, because it’s suicide, game over.

There’s no penalty for amateurs making those kind of mistakes. They can happily troll the public and the press, like this man with a banana.

reporter vs banana man

7) The ultimate upside: the best of all mediums

Before, it was like we had four choices for dinner. Newspapers if we loved words, radio if we wanted sound, television for images and magazines for great photos.

Now, we can turn on our phone or computer and dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet, a glorious feast of multi-media goodness.

Stories about the NBA Finals or anything else you care about will have plenty of words, video highlights and sound. If you’re into the 2016 campaign for the White House, there’s an endless sea of pithy, funny tweets that take ten seconds to read, parody videos on YouTube and deep, meaningful 3,000-word think-pieces about What This All Means.

For providers of news, these are uncertain times. How will we make payroll next month, or next year, as the sands shift beneath our feet?

For consumers of news, these are the best of times.

This isn’t a case of the internet killing the news business, though it certainly feels that way to an entire generation of journalists who have to feel like survivors of the apocalypse. Somebody has to actually write the content that huffpost, google news and other collectors vacuum up.

Things will continue to change and evolve. And they’ll keep changing.

But I have more hope than fear, because the barriers to competition have never been lower and our ability to satisfy the need for information has never been greater–even if what you’re really into is the latest news in knit hats for cats.

6 thoughts on “The past, present and future of news

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