27 February 2007

Will the Internet Kill the Newspaper?

Newspapers are losing sales because they have missed a very important shift. Once upon a time, communities shared a worldview and the newspaper reported on commuinty events. The events were the important thing – the story mattered most. Today, we have a fragmentation of worldviews within every geographical community. Within an area like San Diego we have Low Riders and Bio-tech executives, Beatniks and Rednecks, Lawyers and Retail Store Clerks. They may all live in the same "community" but they all have their own worldview. These shared worldviews shape interests more than shared events. The Internet has allowed the emergence of a geography of ideology, a clustering of worldviews. This is proving more attractive to readers than the old geographical clustering of stories and events.

Frontline is airing a report beginning tonight about the news wars – the threat to local newspapers. The problem, according to Lowell Bergman, is that most of the actual reporting is done by local newspapers and the business model that subsidized their investigations is eroding.

Newspapers have been predicated on the notion that there is a truth that can be reported. A problem like illegal immigration, the occupation of Iraq, or climate change is a story to the local newspaper.

For bloggers, by contrast, these kinds of topics are not stories but worldviews. For the blogosphere, a worldview is a shared set of values, a way of making sense of the world. The difference between a story and a worldview is, in my mind, the difference between the old media and the new. Climate change is not a story - it is a way of judging stories.

The technology of the web has allowed a bigger truth to emerge: without a context or worldview, stories are fairly inert, boring, and of little relevance. Shared context is what now forms audiences and market segments - not shared geography. The Internet is a better tool for this than the newspaper.

Newspapers assume that stories matter most. The blogosphere assumes that worldviews matter most.

If you are convinced that the Industrial Revolution is now threatening your habitat, you don't look at climate change as a story. For you it is an important part of your worldview - a paradigm through which you make sense of everything from corporate malfeasance to political corruption to worsening health, the increases in levels of asthma and cancer.

If you are convinced that Western Civilization is being attacked from without and within, you don't see stories of Hollywood's depiction of casual sex or the influx of illegal immigrants or the existence of terrorist training camps as mere stories. These events inform your worldview and determine what kinds of policies, politicians, and initiatives are needed. For those with strong ideologies, the reporting on a story – what is ignored or “blown out of proportion” – is the story.

Such worldviews immediately suggest a political activism in response to events - not nuanced and balanced news accounts. That a news outlet would remain neutral about an invasion of illegal immigrants into our neighborhoods or American troops into the Middle East is something that offends rather than comforts readers of different worldviews. They don’t want calm reporting – they want their outrage validated and echoed in their news sources. Broadcasters like Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart get this – newspapers, for the most part, still don’t and because of this they are steadily losing readers.

The world of objective news is simply passe. it is being replaced by news with an objective. There is too much information for us to collect even more stories and statistics that are not going to be translated into action. Information that fails to stimulate a change in actions is entertainment and if we want entertainment we can turn to Steven Colbert or Rush Limbaugh.


Dave said...

Well Ron, if you're right, that's the problem.

But, it is not the Internet killing the Newspaper, it is people that don't want a fact that interferes with their worldview and don't develop a worldview that is based on study of facts and development of conclusions that objective analysis compels.

To me, it isn't the media, it is the consumer of media that is at fault. We don't demand the story. We don't vote with our feet when media panders to lovers of ANS's aftermath, a wayward astronaut's tortured journey and the like. Enough of us watch and comment that the Internet media, and more often the print, soon to be Internet press gives us the worldview without the facts.

Life Hiker said...

I suppose the internet is killing the newspaper, but I'm not so sure that it's because people are now getting their news off the internet.

This generation seems to be less interested in "real" news and more interested in sensationalism. Newspapers can't compete with TV or the internet when it comes to sensationalism.

We bloggers tend to think others are like us - searchers, thinkers, disputers, activists. But in reality we're a small minority of America, the minority who might actually think about the idea that newspaper readership is slowly declining every year.

Ron Davison said...

It seems like you've hit on a big weakness with the proliferation of choices - we can always find someone to pander to our worldview no matter how disconnected it seems from reality. How do we change that?

LH - I don't doubt that there is a great deal of interest in the sensational. I do doubt that it is all that unique to our time. And I do ultimately think that a critical mass of people (and their attention) can and will soon change our world for the better. What is the bumper sticker? Another dopeless hope fiend. That'll be me.

David said...

Stephen Jay Gould on objectivity: "Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny--and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do)."

Ron Davison said...


And maybe that's why we eventually opt for embracing bias - it's just too exhausting to continually be ready to abandon theories that don't fit the facts.