What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalismby Jack Fuller
Across America, newspapers that have defined their cities for over a century are rapidly failing, their circulations plummeting even as opinion-soaked web outlets like the Huffington Post thrive. Meanwhile, nightly news programs shock viewers with stories of horrific crime and celebrity scandal, while the smug sarcasm and shouting of pundits like Glenn Beck/i>
Across America, newspapers that have defined their cities for over a century are rapidly failing, their circulations plummeting even as opinion-soaked web outlets like the Huffington Post thrive. Meanwhile, nightly news programs shock viewers with stories of horrific crime and celebrity scandal, while the smug sarcasm and shouting of pundits like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann dominate cable television. Is it any wonder that young people are turning away from the news entirely, trusting comedians like Jon Stewart as their primary source of information on current events?
In the face of all the problems plaguing serious news, What Is Happening to News explores the crucial question of how journalism lost its wayand who is responsible for the ragged retreat from its great traditions. Veteran editor and newspaperman Jack Fuller locates the surprising sources of change where no one has thought to look before: in the collision between a revolutionary new information age and a human brain that is still wired for the threats faced by our prehistoric ancestors. Drawing on the dramatic recent discoveries of neuroscience, Fuller explains why the information overload of contemporary life makes us dramatically more receptive to sensational news, while rendering the staid, objective voice of standard journalism ineffective. Throw in a growing distrust of experts and authority, ably capitalized on by blogs and other interactive media, and the result is a toxic mix that threatens to prove fatal to journalism as we know it.
For every reader troubled by what has become of newsand worried about what the future may holdWhat Is Happening to News not only offers unprecedented insight into the causes of change but also clear guidance, strongly rooted in the precepts of ethical journalism, on how journalists can adapt to this new environment while still providing the information necessary to a functioning democracy.
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What Is Happening to NEWSThe Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism
By JACK FULLER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE COLLAPSE OF THE OLD ORDER
In 1921 Walter Lippmann famously compared the press to "the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision." By the time he published those words, he had already laid out a program for the professionalization of journalism and was on his way to becoming the most influential American newspaperman of his era. Behind his searchlight simile lay the shadow of fundamental doubts about the press that darkened his thinking the rest of his life. "Men cannot do the work of the world," he wrote, "by this light alone."
More than twenty years later in France, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty used the searchlight simile to describe the way perception reaches out to the world. "The function which reveals ..., as a searchlight shows up objects pre-existing in the darkness," he wrote, "is called attention." Merleau-Ponty's work was as influential as Lippmann's, but within a much smaller compass. He insisted that the human mind was not a passive receiver of stimuli, to which it simply reacted. Behaviorism, centered on stimulus and response, was the prevailing psychological doctrine of the time, but he argued that the mind in important ways makes the world it finds. Modern neuroscience again and again is demonstrating the validity of the philosopher's insight. At the same time, the idea that the brain actively shapes the world it is trying to know raises questions about all claims of truth-whether in journalism, science, or anywhere else—and these questions have left a deep mark upon our times.
Though the two men used the same image, they were referring to quite different things. Lippmann was characterizing the economically driven behavior of the press—or as we would now call it, the media—the senders of messages. Merleau-Ponty was describing the singular activity of minds—the receivers of messages. Lippmann saw the limitations of a quasi-public institution. Merleau-Ponty had an expansive view of the shaping, intensely private power of the individual brain. Getting at what is happening today requires us to look deeply into what is going on behind both searchlights.
* * *
Beginning in the late twentieth century and accelerating into the twenty-first, the relationship between news media and audiences underwent a fundamental change. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century it appeared that some of the central tenets of what I will call the Standard Model of Professional Journalism, which was sketched out by Lippmann and eventually almost universally accepted by serious journalists, were in ragged retreat. While once they had offered reporters and editors a way of disciplining their work so that it linked up with the public interest in a free, self-governing society, in the twenty-first century much of the audience no longer seemed to believe in them. The credibility of the established media that tried to adhere to the Standard Model of Professional Journalism had gone into a spiraling decline. Meantime, nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving intense expression of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertions, gained both audience and credibility.
Journalists and others struggled to find explanations for the change: the rise of the Internet, the decreasing attention span of a video-game generation, the increasing sophistication of image-makers in manipulating public opinion. Some of the better thinkers in journalism and its academic institutions recorded shifts in the prevailing intellectual climate. Others recognized the influence of trends in political and economic history.
Of course, the leading factor reshaping the information environment, of which the news is a small part, has been technology. In 1965 Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel Corporation, published a paper in Electronics magazine predicting the rapid, continuous increase in the number of transistors that can fit onto a square inch of silicon. Though everyone including Moore acknowledged a limit to the doubling and redoubling, in practical terms we have not reached it yet. And so the speed and power of computing—and therefore what computers can do—will continue to increase and the cost will continue to decline for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the cost of moving information is also declining precipitously as technological innovation and investment in communication infrastructure rapidly increases the available bandwidth (a measure of how much information can move through a channel in a given amount of time). Text message boards on dial-up online services give way to static images over the Internet, then to music, then to full-motion video on demand.... Telephones connected to copper wires give way to cell phones that fit in your briefcase, to cell phones that fit in your shirt pocket, to cell phones with text messaging, with photographs, with Internet connection, with music, with video, with live TV, and on and on.
The continuous decline in the cost of computing and bandwidth means that for as long as it is worth trying to imagine, more and more information will be moving at a higher and higher rate of speed through and to more and more complex instruments. Exactly what products and services this will lead to is anybody's guess. But this much is not guesswork: There will be more messages for people to choose from—and more difficulty in avoiding the choice.
Newspapers have suffered catastrophic economic damage at the hands of the information revolution. This occurred, not in the first instance because the Internet took away newspapers' readers, though at some point it began to, but rather because it took away advertising, which had represented roughly three-quarters of the revenues of a newspaper and a larger proportion of its profits. The Internet delivered classified advertising (for jobs, homes, used cars, and so on) much more effectively than newspapers ever could. Since classified had been far and away newspapers' most profitable advertising, its deep decline was disastrous. Curiously, Marshall McLuhan foresaw the problem in his odd, oracular 1964 book Understanding Media. Writing of classified ads and stock market tables, he wrote, "Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold." That did not quite happen, but as more and more classified advertising moved to the Internet, the financial pressure on newspapers ratcheted up.
The collapse of the old information order scourged journalism with a poisonous blend of doubt and defiance. As often happens, members of the old order—of whom I am one—lean toward denial while the pioneers of the new see the change as a means of improving everything, including human nature. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur caught the mood when he wrote, "The present is wholly a crisis when expectation takes refuge in utopia and when tradition becomes only a dead deposit of the past."
We need to get beyond both nostalgia and utopianism by understanding what is happening at the most fundamental level, which is often hidden. Useful as the various explanations of the changes sweeping over journalism have sometimes been, deeper forces have been at work. There is more to it than the Internet.
WHERE I AM HEADED
Attention is the prize, which becomes more valuable as demand for it grows. For the institutions of the news media, the new information environment has meant a level of competition for a bit of people's time unimaginable during the 1960s through 1980s when the Standard Model of Professional Journalism rose to its zenith. People have become immersed in messages to a degree that the human mind has never before experienced. Their response to this onslaught has come from deep within the structure of their brains, a structure shaped much more by the evolutionary forces of Homo sapiens' prehistoric origins on the African savannah than by anything since. Within the individual human mind, the increased competition for attention calls into play an ancient mechanism that seizes and focuses the scarce information-processing resources of the brain. We call this mechanism emotion.
In the course of this book we will look closely at both the external competition for the attention of the audience (Lippmann's restless searchlight) and the internal competition within the brain (for control of Merleau-Ponty's searchlight). In the latter case, the young discipline of neuroscience has upended many of the prevailing views about how the mind relates to its world and is reshaping nearly every human-centered area of intellectual inquiry from psychology, sociology, and political science to philosophy, linguistics, and literary criticism. Strangely, the news of what neuroscience has discovered about how we think has so far had little effect on the discipline of journalism. A while back, a fine editor of one of the country's larger daily newspapers asked me what I'd been doing with myself. When I told him about my research, he said that when I was finished it might make for a good article for their science pages. That is where the gee-whiz discoveries of neuroscience have been relegated. Just one more passing curiosity. Not something that shakes journalism's world.
Neuroscience alone does not explain what is happening to the audience. It deals with only one of four separate forces that came together at the close of the twentieth century to reshape the way people take in news. A deep current in America's history made us ready to rebel against experts, including traditional journalists. A separate current in Western intellectual history promoted deep skepticism about how much humans could know reality and understand one another. Into these roiling waters dropped an information technology that facilitated the rebellion and embodied the skepticism. That technology also presented the human mind with unprecedented cognitive and attention challenges. We are in the midst of the turbulence created by the collision of these forces, and I will be dealing with each of them at some length, beginning with the last.
I will draw on the writings of scientists and philosophers (who, like Merleau-Ponty, were often well ahead of the scientists), as well of historians, political scientists, literary theorists, and many others who have worked at a considerable distance from journalism. One reason to go beyond the conventional and trusted tools of journalistic study (such as opinion research, content analysis, and close textual reading) is to get past the dead-end terms in which the question of the future of news easily becomes mired.
My primary goal is to describe the situation in a fresh and revealing light. From this description I will try to draw some implications about the way journalists will need to reshape their professional disciplines. I will have some concluding suggestions about how to connect with audiences in the new information environment, but I will present them with humility, in the full knowledge that new generations of journalists have to be the ones who experiment with the new methods of communicating with people. They will be the ones who discover a new rhetoric for the news.
I begin with a few premises that I don't examine deeply here. First, a free and self-governing society requires sources of information other than the state in order to remain free and self-governing and to make good public decisions. Second, the quality of governance reflects the quality of the information available to the public. Third, it takes energy, skill, resourcefulness, and often courage to gather and disseminate information when powerful people and institutions do not want the information known. And finally, somehow the attention of people needs to be drawn to important matters, especially when the state and other institutions do not want people to believe they are important (think, for example, of the matter of racial injustice when it was officially countenanced).
Fulfilling these needs is the social mission of journalism. Though the means of accomplishing it are changing radically, the nature of the mission is not. Any arrangement for news in the future should be measured against it.
This is not an argument for the survival of the institutions, methods, rhetoric, or mechanisms of mainstream twentieth-century journalism. The fate of newspapers matters to me deeply because I invested my life in them. But the future does not depend on the persistence of ink on newsprint. What matters profoundly to our civic health, to the very way in which we live, is the fate of news itself, of public information about matters important to the commonweal.
One of the lessons of our new information environment is that you cannot entirely separate the message from the messenger. I will not try. I am a creature of the newspaper business, and along the way I will draw anecdotes from this experience and use examples mostly pulled from the newspaper I know best, the Chicago Tribune. I hope they will shed light not just on print journalism but on the challenges facing news in all forms. But I won't pretend to be a detached, disinterested observer. Nobody believes in them anymore anyway. I will be an "I" in this tale. So I guess I should introduce myself.
WHERE I'M COMING FROM
I started my newspaper career as a prep sports stringer and then copyboy with the Chicago Tribune, where my father spent his career as a reporter and copy editor. It is almost dream-like to recall how newspapers operated then. I suspect that when journalists starting out today look back forty years from now they will see that their careers spanned even more change.
When I began working at the Chicago Tribune in the early 1960s, reporters typed their stories on manual typewriters. A corps of copyboys, as both young men and women were then called, moved those stories and multiple carbon copies from desk to desk and finally to the composing room where linotype machine operators sat at oddly organized keyboards punching in the stories all over again to reproduce the stories in hot lead. There were four citywide, English-language daily newspapers in Chicago, three network television channels, one young public television station, and one independent television station owned by Tribune Company. Competition seemed fierce.
Tribune editors went over the rival newspapers, edition by edition, noting facts that they had and we didn't, and demanding to know why we didn't have them. But in fact the competition was circumscribed. To get into the newspaper game took an enormous printing plant and a fleet of trucks big enough to deliver papers to carriers who passed by everyone's house in the circulation area once a day. To broadcast required a federal license. News over the air was limited; even all-news radio had not yet arrived.
When I was a copyboy, the Tribune was one of the last holdouts against the elements of the Standard Model of Professional Journalism that required that opinion be kept out of news stories and that the news operation be run with indifference to the editorial position of the newspaper. The Tribune was conservative Republican from its first page to last and did not care who knew it.
The Chicago Daily News, where I went to work as a reporter a few years later while I was in college, was a different kind of paper, highly respected by news professionals, with nationally recognized correspondents such as Peter Lisagor, Keyes Beech, and Georgie Anne Geyer working in Washington and overseas and brilliant columnists, reporters, and critics—such as Mike Royko, Lois Wille, M. W. Neumann, and Richard Christiansen—working in Chicago. Nonetheless, some of the things we did at the Daily News in those days were inexcusable.
One night, for example, beset by a period utterly bereft of news, my editor assigned me to look into every crime reported on the city's Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and elevated trains during my shift. I did and we put them together in a single big story for the front page. The next evening we did it again, and so did our competition. An attractive young woman improved the story by showing one of our photographers a big bruise high on her mini-skirted leg; she had suffered it when a mugger attacked her on an elevated train platform. By the following day the headlines were blaring about a "CTA crime wave," and that evening I was assigned to try to get myself mugged on the subway. (I failed miserably.) As the week came to a close, the mayor put a police officer on every train and many buses. Of course, there had been nothing out of the ordinary about the level of crime on the CTA. We had just shone the Daily News' searchlight on it to drum up excitement at the newsstands. Once the city took symbolic action, the story died, and crime on the buses, subways, and elevated trains once again went unnoticed. Later, when I heard journalists pine away for the journalism of that period, I always wondered whether they were thinking of things like the CTA crime wave.
By the time I returned to the Tribune in the early 1970s, the Tribune had professionalized. But the way a newspaper was produced remained fundamentally unchanged since early in the century. Then suddenly the typewriters vanished. Computer terminals replaced them. The linotype machines down in the composing room went away, too. No more hot lead. A new, quicker, cheaper paper and film process replaced it. The big, old presses disappeared from the basement pressroom in Tribune Tower. Modern ones began to roll at a new printing facility a couple miles away.
Excerpted from What Is Happening to NEWS by JACK FULLER Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jack Fuller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent nearly forty years working in newspapers, serving as editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and as president of the Tribune Publishing Company. He is the author of seven novels, as well as News Values: Ideas for an Information Age, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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