It is an oft-elusive yet elegant and paradoxical quality of human existence: We crave connection with others while simultaneously reveling in our fierce independence. Journalism historian Mitchell Stephens brilliantly describes this basic human need,the desire to ask and also to answer, “What’s new?” as a “hunger for awareness. ”More than specific information on specific events, the great gift a system of news bestows on us is the confidence that we will learn about any particularly important or interesting events. The news is more than a category of information or a form of entertainment; it is an awareness; it provides a kind of security.
How do we maintain a sound balance between our insides and our outsides—our independence and our interdependence—in the digital age of iPhones, iPads, and 24/7 deadlines? We look anew at the traditional journalistic quality of relevance. Long understood as one of journalism’s bedrock principles—news must be relevant to the audience—relevance means something very different now that the news environment is networked and readers not only easily talk back to reporters but can become reporters themselves aka “citizen journalists.”
I would venture that most of us are similar in thinking to my friend Melody McCormick, a retired reporter. We want to determine just the right balance of outlets, sources, media, and channels to create that fat and happy feeling of being just full enough of news. Here’s a quick glimpse at Melody’s optimal network: “a combo of internet, newspapers, radio sites, magazines, maybe club or church newsletters,and social sites I cobble together to make me well-informed and also entertained.”
Sarah Merion, a young Boston executive who studied abroad in Buenos Aires, has different but not incongruent needs. Sarah works to increase the quality of the information that she is receiving. “I’ve placed myself in a position to receive news, but it’s divide and conquer. I need to decrease the quantity and increase quality if news is going to have real value in my life and in my world right now,”says Sarah. She has tried multiple methods to design a viable news network, and she believes the only way to create, maintain, and ensure quality is to consciously limit news exposure. “Once you consciously decrease the quantity, quality should improve,” she says.
The news is there—no need to lament the demise of the newspaper and the robust social practice of journalism that continue to draw some of this country’s (and other countries’) best and brightest. What we need to do now is stop complaining that news is lost and newspapers (and the journalism that supported them) are dead, and instead focus on creating, distributing, engaging, encouraging, recognizing, respecting, and supporting quality news in all its forms and guises. I respectfully disagree with the throngs of professionals and scholars such as Alex Jones, who’s Losing the News is a melancholic and nostalgic lament for “the kind of news I knew.” Instead, I align with the progressive journalism scholars and innovative thinkers—notably Howard Rheingold, Jay Rosen, and Jeff Jarvis—among others,who are building on the fundamental understanding that what we have come to know as news—its form, style, and substance—has been irrevocably changed because of the advent and proliferation of digital technologies. Quite simply, news is very different now because of the way it is created, distributed, and used. It is time now to work to make it better. As always, it starts and ends with us.