Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Killing Not Just Newspapers, But News

Nielsen released its report yesterday on how Americans spend their time online, and most of the extensive media coverage seems to be focusing on how popular their research shows Facebook to be. Apparently there was some doubt about that prior to yesterday. This study tells a much larger story than that, however. Focusing on the social media aspect of it seems like a strange bit of rhetoric, and an impulse to exploit the angle that news outlets assume will generate the most attention. Social media and blogs together comprised almost a quarter of people’s time spent online, but it was not the largest category. That remains the miscellaneous category, but let’s not pull punches here, it’s porn. The smallest share of time online goes to news, at 2.6 percent.

That’s a significant piece of information at a time when the internet is said to be killing newspapers, with even television media having a difficult time keeping up with changing landscape. But if society as a whole is devoting only one fortieth of its time spent online to learning about current events, I wonder if that calls into question the assumption that traditional news media are failing because of competition from convenient, cheap, high volume online sources of news. Other analyses have indicated that overall readership of established news agencies is in decline, not just readership of their print formats. It seems that it has always been assumed that this readership was dispersing to other sources from which they gathered the same volume of information that they used to consume, but I expect that that would be difficult to prove empirically. To me, these new numbers support an alternative interpretation: that people are opting out of information-gathering altogether, and that established news media are losing ground not to competition, but to distraction.

The existing narrative reflects what I think is an unfortunate and all too common perspective that all change is positive change. Letting that perspective go unquestioned allows us to sacrifice the best of what is currently available to us, either because the best of what is emerging is thought to outweigh it or because preserving anything against the onslaught of social or technological change is deemed a lost cause. The optimistic outlook on current trends in news consumption is evidently that there is a greater volume of reporting, a greater diversity of opinion, and a greater ease of access. That’s hardly all there is to the story, though. A greater volume of reporting doesn’t mean much if the sources of that reporting are devoid of the resources that might otherwise encourage a fuller investigation and a higher quality of reporting. A greater diversity of opinion is hardly progress if it reflects a devaluing of objectivity and a tendency of people to choose the sources of their news based on a preexisting agreement with the outlet’s perspective. Greater ease of access is barely significant if fewer people are choosing to access the most significant information that is available to them.

Of course, I don’t know that any of these trends are truly dominant. I am confident, however, that there is far too much optimistic assumption about the character of American audiences, and far too much dismissiveness and acceptance of powerlessness among those who might be in a position to affect positive change in consumer behavior. Much of the media seems content to fawn over social networking sites, curve their reporting on topics of much broader significance around a sense of awe at their popularity, wrongly declare them to be the drivers of foreign revolutions, and so on. The cultural position of Facebook, Twitter and the like is crucially important, but I would love to see a lot more analysis of its causes and effects, and a basic willingness to criticize and resist.

As far as I’m concerned, the story to be taken away from the Nielsen report is not that Facebook holds irreversible cultural dominance, but that an enormous portion of the American public enjoys masturbation in its multitudinous forms, and hates information and critical thinking. And as much as that drives frivolous use of social media and a resistance to hard news, it also may inform the existing news media’s response to such trends, so that their diminished quality and misplaced emphasis drives nails into their own coffins.

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