by Henry Jenkins

How new is news?

Representative democracy emerged in the context of a relatively slow flow of information between the capital and the periphery. Elected representatives were delegated to make decisions for the public, in part because they had quicker access to reliable information. The earliest American newspapers were content to reproduce "intelligence" gathered from ships as they passed through their harbours, information about events that might have occurred months earlier at some other port of call. It is remarkable, given the geographic distance separating the thirteen original colonies, that they were able to think of themselves as having collective interests, as forming, in Benedict Anderson’s terms, an "imaginary community" that could stand firm against distant European powers. The complex balance between federal and state authority established in the U.S. Constitution might be understood as a negotiation between the ideal of local control and the recognition of the slow flow of information across those huge geographic distances. The introduction of the telegraph dramatically accelerated the flow of news, and it has been followed throughout the twentieth century by a succession of faster technologies that allow minute by minute, real time reporting of distance events.

In turn, these technologies have established public expectations about timely delivery of the news. The result of this urgency to give us the news as quickly as possible has been a complex layering of the television newscast – sometimes splitting the screen to report on simultaneous events worldwide (such as the simultaneous impeachment vote and American attacks on Baghdad), sometimes introducing multiple windows and layers of textual information (as with the "crawls" introduced by the cable news networks in response to the complex geopolitics of the post-September 11 world). The impact of this accelerated and intensified news flow has been, many warn, a loss of editorial judgement, the circulation of more misinformation. The speed of the networked computer increases expectations for an even faster news flow, with the public often turning to on-line sources with the anticipation that they will be able to offer in-depth information (a product of what Janet Murray calls our encyclopedic expectations for new media) as rapidly as television news can provide the headlines. This speeded-up dispersion of important information has led some to speculate that the Internet might make participatory democracy practical for the first time in the modern era. But others have argued that new media may undermine the serious and thoughtful deliberation upon which democracy depends.

Who owns the news?

Writers such as Robert McChesney have spoken of the danger of media concentration: today, five major corporations control the bulk of the world’s media. Deregulation has enabled these organizations to become significant players across a whole range of media channels. News has increasingly become one commodity among many within multinational media industries, packaged and sold alongside entertainment, evaluated according to costs and audience share, rather than traditional journalistic standards. Some have claimed that digital media have lowered the barriers to entry into the news market for alternative news organizations, such as the anti-globalization Independent Media Centers or the collaboratively edited Slashdot. At the same time, the web has thrown into crisis the traditional boundaries between news markets, so that local newspapers now compete directly with more prestigious publications elsewhere in the country, not to mention television news networks or mass market magazines. Many traditional city papers are unlikely to survive this competition. Already, many cities no longer have competing dailies and, increasingly, local papers are owned by national syndicates. The result may be further narrowing of news ownership.

How Local Will News Be?

The American tradition of the local newspaper contrasted sharply with the system of national papers in many other parts of the world. The local newspaper was an embodiment of a political system organized around a distrust of a distant federal government and a commitment to states rights. The introduction of the wire services profoundly changed the gathering and reporting of news, insuring that the bulk of our national and international news came from sources outside our own communities. The shift from a partisan press toward a tradition of more "objective" reporting coincided with this shift in the site of origin for the news. The high degree of mobility in the American culture has, some argue, led to a withering of our bonds to local communities. Most Americans now read national news publications, such as USA Today or the Wall Street Journal, rather than local dailies, and the most significant American newspapers, such as the New York Times, are repositioning themselves to serve a national readership. As these publications increasingly compete in a national or perhaps even an international context, one strategy for survival may be increased specialization -- that is, creating a "magnet" section in the paper, appropriate to a local market, but containing sufficient depth to become the national standard on this topic. So, for example, we might imagine readers turning to the San Jose Mercury for technical news, the Los Angeles Times for entertainment news, the New York Times for international news, the Wall Street Journal for business news, and the Washington Post for national political news.

Would it be possible for other publications to develop similar concentrations -- for the Boston Globe to focus on higher education, the Miami Herald on the interests of retired citizens, or the Des Moines Register on agriculture? The web has fostered stronger feelings of affiliation with communities defined around common interests rather than geographic locality. Over time, new publications will more fully serve the interests of those dispersed affinity groups, as has already occurred with the increased specialization of magazines. Ironically, then, at a time when the breakdown of "Big Government" results in a return of power and tax dollars to local and state control, fewer people read local newspapers. The battles over viewership for television news diminish coverage of local government in favor of a focus on crime and accidents. The emergence of government websites allows local and state government to communicate directly with their citizens, but in the absence of a strong press which might hold them more accountable for their actions or question the information they post on their Web sites. The news media tell us less and less about the routine operations of governmental bodies, covering them only when they become the subjects of scandal.

Who reads the news?

The percentage of people under 30 who report having read a newspaper in the last 24 hours has declined from 67 percent in 1965 to 29 percent in 1996. The percentage watching television news declined from 52 percent in 1965 to 22 percent in 1996. There have been similar decreases in the number of young people who read traditional news and opinion magazines or who listen to radio newscasts. National organizations, such as the Pew Foundation, interpret these numbers as evidence for a declining awareness of news and current events, but that conclusion has been contested by such writers as Jon Katz and Don Tapscott who argue that teens and young adults feel more vitally connected to world events than ever before and demonstrate a high degree of social consciousness and participation in various activist and public service efforts. Katz argues that young people get most of their information from non-traditional sources (such as the Web) or through entertainment media (such as hip-hop lyrics, late night comedy shows, or topical sitcoms). The success of efforts, such as MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign or ABC’s Politically Incorrect suggest that alternative approaches to the news are more apt to attract younger viewers. The rise of net-based humor magazines, such as The Onion and Modern Humorist, can be understood as a continuation of these same strategies into the web environment. These shifts in news consumption imply the existence of significant generational differences in the way citizens understand current events, helping to explain, for example, the periodic recurrence of "moral panics" about digital media among older news consumers in contrast with the greater comfort towards new media displayed by younger consumers.

What counts as news?

Traditional news focused heavily on the actions of government agencies, whether at the local, state, national or international level, understanding its mission as reporting debates in the public sphere. The newer media have demonstrated a stronger interest in "lifestyle" news, focusing more on long term developments (gender or race relations, sexuality, the environment, health care) rather than the topical issues (election returns, polling results, congressional votes, political speeches) that now dominate mainstream journalism. This shift in what counts as news is, in part, a product of the rise of identity or single-issue political movements in the 1960s and the growing recognition that "the personal is political." It also reflects the nature of these new media channels – the focus, say, in cablevision of a narrow-cast conception of the audience, the focus in digital news on personalization, or the larger lead-time required to translate topical news events into the content for entertainment programming. Michael Schudson has argued that we are seeing a shift away from what has increasingly been seen as the impossible ideal of the informed citizen, knowledgeable about all aspects of public life, towards the concept of a monitoring citizen, more interested in long-term developments than day-to-day minutia. In many ways, the patterns of news consumption now emerging among the young lend themselves to the demands of monitoring citizens – focusing on the middle to long-range, drawn towards issues which seem especially pressing or urgent. Some digital theorists, such as Nicholas Negroponte, have argued that the new digital environment will make it possible for people to get more of the kind of information they need, gathering together the best coverage on a salient topic from news sources around the world. Other writers, such as Cass Sunstein, however, argue that this increased personalization of the news may result in a breakdown of the social ties that hold civic life together, as no two citizens are apt to be informed about or care about the same issues.

Who Gathers the News?

Many early citizens insisted that "information must be free," imagining a world where the public would have immediate access to vast databases of governmental records which would allow them to form their own judgements without the intervention of professional news organizations. As Peter Walsh notes, the new digital culture has developed a healthy skepticism of traditional forms of authority, demanding that vernacular theory and grassroots expertise receive greater respect. Yet, average citizens lack the time, energy, motivation, and training to successfully process this huge data dump without the newsgathering, filtering, and contextualizing resources of professional journalism. Some news sites have exploited the web’s potential to make vast amounts of information available to readers within searchable databases, more information than would have fit the pages of traditional print publications or the time limits of broadcast media. New kinds of intermediaries have also emerged to help filter through the range of online publications and to assemble the most interesting or salient articles on a specific topic. Feed editor Steve Johnson has used the term, "para-sites" to refer to the ways in which these new intermediaries function as clearing houses for information gathered by other news agencies. In recent years, we have seen a dramatic increase in amateur "para-sites," known as Weblogs or blogs, which offer complex and thoughtful synthesis of and commentary on information gathered from other sources. Amateurs have not displaced traditional news-gatherers, but they have become more effective as grassroots intermediaries, filtering news to serve niche communities, larger than the readership for Negroponte’s personalized newspapers but smaller than the audience of mass market publications. These amateur intermediaries are beginning to create forms of journalism that serve the needs of the web’s affinity-based communities.