Tag Archives: news

In the Bubble

The decentralizing power of media after the 15th Century has been replicated again by digital media in the 21st Century.  We are in another cycle that defeats top-down cultural narratives. 

The history of human communication follows cyclical patterns of media development that sometimes throw members of a culture together, only to have newer developments pull them apart again. Thinking broadly, before widespread printing after the 15th Century the institutional church had informational dominance over most communities in the western world.  After that century, the clergy increasingly had to compete with printed manuscripts not under their control.

The same pattern repeated itself in the 1960s. At that time television networks had some of the same power of the medieval church. If citizens wanted to know what was going on in the world, they certainly had newspapers.  But if they wanted the immediacy of fast-breaking stories they only had two dominant television networks with mature news divisions.  For example, the bloody Vietnamese fighting of the aptly named “living room war” came home to Americans at dinner time via film rushed across the Pacific Ocean in time to air on the CBS Evening News or NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.  Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley were familiar chroniclers of its horrors. They usually had audience shares that news outlets today can only dream about.

What the printed book did after the 15th Century is being replicated with digital media in the 21st Century.  American lives are no longer dominated by the same cultural narratives.  Indeed, with the proliferation of choices online and on various video platforms it’s increasingly obvious that we have drifted into different “communities of discourse.”  That phrase is a slightly fancy way to say that the fragmentation of the informational world means that we no longer share a core of common national experiences.  Early moonshots, the Vietnam War, the World Series and even the Watergate affair in the 1970s were all defining events to be collectively celebrated or mourned.  Even the least public-spirited Americans could not help but be caught up in the net of their compelling stories.

All of this makes it possible to notice that we now have an informational universe that separates more than unites.  We are a nation that sees fewer events as compelling moments to be understood in the same way.

YouTube, Facebook, “Google Play” and are their clones will learn what we like, giving us more of the same and less of the alternate media and narratives that used to be baked into the national mix.

The evidence is all around us.  Most strikingly, and with many exceptions, younger Americans do not typically follow national journalism, which was the birthright of their more activist counterparts in the 1960s.  For many of these “post millennials” “news” has been redefined as a form of satirical or “reality” programming.  Similarly, films are increasingly budgeted and planned on the basis of their narrower demographics.  We have adult films, “tentpole” films built around serialized comics or toys, and some durable family features that try to bridge the divide.  But viewing a top Oscar winner is no longer a family event. All of this is symptomatic of the fact that Americans have retreated to bubbles of media content that can be customized to screen out the ‘wrong’ political attitudes, or to skip over materials meant for a distinctly different demographics.  YouTube, Facebook, “Google Play” and their clones will learn what we like, allowing even more information segregation, and omitting alternate narratives that used to be baked into the national media mix.

For most of us, but especially for some younger Americans, the bubble has shrunk even more to a word-starved social media world of friends they interact with or celebrities they “follow.” As a result, as college teacher I share less of the American cultural universe with my students than was the case even two decades ago.  We mostly follow very different paths through the cultural wilderness of popular music and popular film and video.  Hard news reporting has become an island that is rarely visited. In practical terms I can’t mention current and consequential congressional hearings, major presidential addresses or ongoing crises like the unraveling of the European Union, expecting that we are still in the same informational world.  And they might find me equally clueless about new musicians, video games, or new “breakout” performers.

The point is not to define fault, but to notice that if our society seems less like a society and more like a federation of tribes, that’s because it is indeed what we have become: changed by media developments that have made fragmentation possible and the once-potent judgment of “ignorance” passé.

Looking for a Paper in Baltimore

800px-Newspapers-20080928 commons wikimedia
                      Commons wikimedia

A news site online is a step back from journalism on display in a public space.

Recent work took me to a hotel on the edge of the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore.  Those few square miles have everything a city might want: one of the two finest aquariums in the United States, scores of restaurants and shops, classic wooden ships moored in the small rectangular harbor, and a ring of convention hotels. Just a few blocks back sits the legendary Camden Yards baseball field, just an over-the-fence shot from Babe Ruth’s birthplace.  And further up Platt St: a stunning cathedral-sized train shed full of fascinating remnants of the Civil War.

One  morning I needed a news hit beyond the chatty hosts of the morning talk shows.  And I was tired of reading headlines from my tablet, with its cramped size and its jumpy touch-screen.

What I didn’t expect was that it would be a major challenge to buy that simple artifact of the civil society, a real newspaper.

Of course it’s old news that hard copies from nation’s biggest journalistic institutions are on the way out. The thought of a newspaper subscription never comes up among my students, though some find their way to these outlets online.  According to the Pew Research Center, only a quarter of millennials show any interest in political or civic news; a fact that doesn’t bode well for the future.

 If we think an occasional glance at Gawker or CNN or Fox News will keep us in the loop, we’re badly mistaken.

Even so, one would expect to pass street kiosks and stores still hawking hard copies of papers from the many cities in the nation’s populated northeast corridor.  After all, half of all news subscribers in the nation still read paper-only versions.  Yet on that day this vital instrument of the open society was mostly absent from the public square.

The clerk in the store on the first floor of my posh hotel didn’t flinch when she said they carried no papers.  None?  So I started a slog across the harbor plaza, passing the tall ships, the overpriced chain restaurants selling all things fried, and perhaps another fifty establishments waiting for buyers of what most of us don’t really need (i.e., a candy store the size of a supermarket).  Surely there would be a corner box selling The Baltimore Sun or USA Today, or The New York Times or perhaps the Washington Post.  No luck.  Then into a Barnes and Noble in its stunning Power House venue next to the National Aquarium.  Yet again I seemed to be striking out. Then a staffer told me to ask someone behind the check-out counter.  And, sure enough, from under a desk in a corner of the store came a copy of The Post.  Why it was hidden from public view I will never know.  I felt like a citizen of Soviet times picking up some illicit samizdat from a dissident.  Even pornography seemed to have better placement in the store.

This is all dismaying.  Access to a news site online is not the same as news displayed in the places we frequent. The front pages especially of the nation’s tabloids were always written to draw in the passerby.  Their “screamer” headlines were meant to turn recent events into news you somehow needed.  Anybody walking down a street in the 1970s or 80s got a register of the nation’s pulse even if they weren’t buying.

Seeking out these sites online against mountains of competitors is a step towards the isolation of national and local news, with the consequence of equal isolation of the civil sphere from the rest of American life. These agents of democracy obviously hang by a frayed thread, competing in a carnival of more provocative digital content. It’s no surprise digital news platforms are in financial trouble, and that newsrooms once built for sizable staffs are now some of the lonelier offices on the planet.

The deeper problem is that there are too few newspapers sitting in the driveways or front steps of homes in our neighborhoods.  If we think an occasional glance at Gawker or CNN or Fox News will keep us in the loop, we’re badly mistaken.  And at about 200 words a minute, television news reduces events to headlines rather than discursive coverage. The ubiquitous newspaper available on a city’s streets remains the much richer form of reporting, and an important marker of our connections to this culture we call our own.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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