Everyone a News Junkie: The New Rules for Consuming Information

There is little doubt that we live in an age of great transition with respect to news, journalism, and the future of digital media.  The old institutions of newspaper journalism are struggling to figure out how to remain relevant—and more importantly, financially viable.  Not only do we not know what the future holds, there is no clear consensus on where we stand with regard to this transition.  Clay Shirky maintains that we are only at the beginning of a massive shift that could take generations to fully resolve itself.  Dave Winer, on the other hand, maintains that we are in the middle of the transition.  That these two astute observers of the internet age have such differing views is indicative of just how transformative this change is likely to be and how uncertain the end result.

With change comes opportunity, and uncertainty will encourage diverse responses.  Not knowing where the finish line is, there is an incentive to place bets on long shots.  We have already seen new models of journalism emerge, for example, Amanda Michel’s recruitment of citizen journalists and bloggers to cover the 2008 presidential elections. Experimentation will continue, and these new models will be engaged in a sort of survival of the fittest.  Successful models will reproduce, adding to the richness of the information ecosystem described by Steve Berlin Johnson.

The opportunities are not limited just to producers of information.  The richness of the ecosystem benefits consumers, who now have an array of information accessible at their fingertips.  Not only is there more content than ever before, it is also more accessible and sharable as a result of social media and rss feeds.

There are dangers.  More is not always better.  When a national newspaper has to reduce the number of journalists on its staff because of financial pressures, there is a loss of quality that is not offset by the sheer volume of information coming from other places.  There are other ills as well.  Jaron Lanier describes the dangers of collective intelligence.  Eli Pariser warns of online filter bubbles.  As Dave Winer notes, sources are increasingly publishing directly, for example, through blog posts.  In some ways, the consumer must now play the role that journalists played in the past, applying a critical eye to the substance and the source of information.  We must become more discerning readers.

During the age when institutions controlled media, there was too much reliance on the reputation of the institution.  There was an illusion in the infallibility of institutions like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. For the most part, the institutions did not let us down.  But when they failed, the failures were catastrophic.  Judith Miller and The Times’ failure to accurately present information on the issue of Iraq’s (lack of) weapons of mass destruction is perhaps the most devastating example of this in recent years.  The Judith Miller incident highlights a vulnerability that was always present.  When power is consolidated in a few organizations, the public depends to a much greater degree on those organizations to get it right.  In an age in which the power of information is distributed across a vast ecosystem, risk is also distributed.  Though it has been less than eight years since The New York Times got the weapons of mass destruction story wrong, we already live in a different age.  With the proliferation of blogs and alternative online news sources since 2003, it is unlikely that one source could drive the public discourse—particularly the discourse of liberal America—as much as The New York Times did in 2003.

The distribution of power across an ecosystem and the resulting weakening of the power of The New York Times places a greater burden on the consumer of information.  Each reader must seek out information from diverse sources, must compare and aggregate that information in order to develop a complete and unbiased understanding of the world.  We must consciously burst our filter bubbles.  We must understand the limitations of the collective source.  And when reading accounts from sources that have gone direct, we must recognize that as readers, we are also journalists tasked with not just absorbing information, but evaluating it, testing it.

This is a difficult task, but one that could have far-reaching benefits.  In contrast to the old method of passively consuming information from one source, the new era of active readership, may well lead to higher levels of civic engagement.  The key is to educate Americans about how to consume online information in an active, evaluative way.  I think one of the tasks for American middle schools and high schools in the 21st century is to help their students understand how to effectively use all of the information that is suddenly at their fingertips.  Online media should be a required component of any language arts curriculum.  Unfortunately, many school districts have yet to learn how to use the internet as a teaching tool.  Most are so concerned about their students’ misuse of social media, that they treat the internet as a threat to learning rather than a benefit.  But the landscape of information is changing.  Sooner or later, education will catch up and Americans will be in a much better position to take advantage of whatever the future of digital media holds.