The news industry is one that is undergoing a constant evolution. From word of mouth to the printed press, and on to radio, televised, and digital media, the art of spreading the word has changed enormously throughout its lifetime.
Nowadays, another dimension of news has come to the fore: The social dimension.
Most Americans, and indeed most people with access to news coverage all around the world, are most familiar with a type of news reporting that is presented in a kind of lecture-oriented format. Stories, at least those sent to press by major news organizations, are usually very factual and objective, and tend to follow a common pattern. Now, these are good things to have in such a crucial and informative media source, don’t get me wrong. But if you look at the broader, grander scale of the news industry, this kind of media is something of an anomaly.
Back in the 19th century, and even well before, news was spread by gossip, word on the street, and pamphleteering. One could make a case, as Tom Standage, business editor at the Economist does, that early American revolutionaries like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were essentially low-tech bloggers, using pamphlets and propagandistic methods to spread the news. Before such technology as the radio or television emerged (making competitive news creation prohibitively expensive for most), news was communicated largely by coffee shop conversations and pamphlets handed out on the street. News then was much more partisan and was fully conscious of this fact.
Surprisingly enough, technological advancement seems to be bringing the news back to this kind of media, and away from what 19th century press developed into. In other words, moving forward in tech is bringing us back in time.
That’s not to say that this is a bad thing! As the internet becomes more and more pervasive, and more and more people begin using it to discuss and spread ideas (as I’m doing now), the news will gradually be taken out of the hands of the few and become produced by the many. Already, sites like Twitter and Facebook (both of which can be linked to this article at the bottom of the page) allow people of all kinds to share events and discussions with friends. In fact, the news of the death of Osama bin Laden was first publicized accidentally by a Pakistani man tweeting about the events unfolding near his home.
This is very reminiscent of those 19th century times when pamphlets and common people were the main vehicle by which news traveled. Things are also becoming more partisan, as they were then. As news becomes more dominated by and dependent on the power of the internet, people are more able to weigh in and voice their opinions about stories of all kinds. In fact, social networks like Facebook allow people to almost create news stories, forcing the larger media world to pick up the story. If enough people take up a cause online, the industry has no choice but to notice.
All of these things lead me to one simple conclusion: The until-recently monopolistic news industry is quickly and inexorably shifting to a social one, and it’s up to the industry to jump on this bandwagon or be run over by it. The potential for an amazing new era of news is enormous. Which side will they end up on?
For more on this subject, and to see some of the writing that inspired and informed this post, check out this Economist discussion.