Where's the Rub?

PUBLISHED: October 12, 2011

A group of daily papers in New England calls its electronic edition No Inky Fingers. The point, of course, is that with digital news nothing rubs off on readers’ hands. But what’s rubbing off on their brains?

The disappearance of what could be called the mental rub-off effect is partly to blame for the fact that many Americans are overloaded with information, yet seem to know less than ever about current events. As news packaging shifts from general interest to specific interest, it becomes difficult for mass audiences to rub up against the news—even if accidentally.

Not long ago most American homes received at least one daily newspaper. Just idly turning the pages to find the sports section or comics, readers couldn’t help but glance at the news headlines, and bits of information tended to rub off.

Television, before cable and satellite, was arranged so that most entertainment stopped at the dinner hour and again before bedtime for general-interest news broadcasts. Just turning the dial, or waiting for the weather forecast, viewers couldn’t help but sample a bit of hard news.

And think how radio used to be. The government basically required stations to run news or “public service” programming—so whether you were listening to rock, country or classical, every hour programs paused for a few minutes of news. The news was hard to avoid, and some of it rubbed off.

By contrast, today’s boutique media allow many people to skip news altogether. You can set your Internet home page so that it serves up only what you’re interested in. You can watch video via Hulu or YouTube and never encounter a smidgen of news. You can listen 24/7 to satellite radio or other digital music services and not be bothered by reportage from the outside world.

Even consumers who answer surveys by stating that they get “news” online or by watching cable channels often are referring to something that isn’t really news at all. Some cable “news” channels devote virtually all of prime time to nonstop campaigns for liberal and conservative agendas, making little or no effort to summarize the major news of the day.

Many television producers and an increasing number of newspaper editors mistakenly believe that since the day’s hard news is readily available, around-the-clock, from so many sources, it’s no longer in their commercial interest, or the public interest, to serve it up themselves.

When I asked a college media class of 40 students recently if they read a daily newspaper, two hands went up. When I clarified that online newspaper sites qualified, three more hands were raised. Yet everyone in the class claimed to be at least generally aware of the news. I was told that “important stuff” gets relayed by text, tweet or other social media.

While that’s often true, it contributes to the total inversion of the traditional process by which news is disseminated. Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom is familiar with the most basic debate among journalists: Should we give the public what it wants to know, or what it ought to know? The best prescription has always been a combination of both.

However, the line that separates those considerations is moving—both because journalists are succumbing to competitive pressure, and because consumers are taking it upon themselves to alter the equation. Thanks to modern media and devices, they have the tools with which to change it.

The standard pushback is that there’s more information out there than ever before, and that interested consumers want to sort through it to find the news. Again: Want? Or, ought?

The sad truth is that while some of us are naturally curious about what we don’t know, an increasing number of readers and viewers want only reinforcement of what they already know. While it’s not the job of media to force-feed news to an uninterested audience, the system worked better when some news and information just happened to rub off.

Personally, I’ve always relied upon great editors and great broadcasters to tell me what they think is important each day. I’m determined to form my own opinions, but I’m not so audacious as to think I know what’s important without professional help.

One of my favorite news slogans is one used for decades by the Scripps newspaper chain: “Give light and the people will find their own way.” Yet in modern communications we seem to give off more heat than light, leaving too many information-loaded consumers stumbling around in the dark.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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