The one true account of the history of news

Has the paper of record has been replaced by the tweet of the moment? Richard Hine looks at how the way we consume news has changed.

A newspaper with the headline

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 @Doug88888

Richard Hine began his career as an advertising copywriter. After moving to New York at the age of 24, he held creative and marketing positions at Adweek, Time magazine, where he became publisher of Time’s Latin America edition, and The Wall Street Journal, where he became vice president of marketing and business development.

Once upon a time there was news. Things happened. Smart journalists were assigned to report and write about these events. An all-powerful editor decided how the stories should be assembled and displayed in a way that best indicated their relative importance to the community. And the world, in the form of a newspaper, was delivered directly to your doorstep.

“News” was a real-life storybook with a beginning, middle and an end.

We believed in it.

“News” was the way we, as individuals, could make sense of the world at least once a day.

We agreed this to be true.

Plus, the “news” was mostly good. Suddenly, it was the 1990s! The economy was strong. America was not at war.

We were happy.

And then it was 1996. We all had cable TV. And 20 million of us were waiting patiently for our dial-up internet connection to go through. But “news” was still “news.” Despite the predictions of media experts, CNN hadn’t killed newspapers or even newsmagazines. In fact, when big stuff happened live or was given saturation coverage on CNN, print sales went up—people’s desire to read about what happened, to understand it, to put it into the context of our shared history, actually increased.

Along came a Fox.

Until Fox News launched in 1996, nobody knew how unfair and unbalanced the news was. Thankfully, Fox rectified that. It helped America understand that a blowjob in the White House was the only thing we needed to worry about, despite whatever Osama Bin Laden might have been planning.

By 2000, Fox News was so powerful that when it hired a cousin of George W. Bush and allowed him to award the 2000 Presidential Election to George W. Bush even though the election was still “too close to call” by any traditional journalistic standards, all the other networks went along with the plan. (Later, when traditional journalistic organisations actually counted all the votes, it turned out Al Gore had actually won. But I guess we should just get over it and stop being such sore losers, right?)

1996 also saw the launch of a comedy program called The Daily Show which, in the era of the “fake news” disseminated by Fox News, quickly became one of the most trusted news sources in the world.

You know the rest, right?

Terror attacks. Phony intelligence. Fake wars. Torture. The New York Times goes along with it all. Holy shit, what kind of world is this?

We weren’t happy.

Nothing was true.

We couldn’t trust anyone.

Except maybe bloggers. And citizen journalists. And social media. And suddenly, now, what’s in the newspapers and on the TV doesn’t actually matter anymore. The only thing that matters is the news we choose to read and share and tweet and joke about. And our Klout scores.

Your mind is being polluted. Unless you agree with me.

When I joined TIME Magazine in 1992, one of the things we believed in was the ability of a news organization to separate the “news” from the “noise.”

In the past 20 years, the noise has multiplied and the traditional news organization has shrunk to the point where it often lacks the ability to be heard above the din. Media consolidation has put control of the mass media in the hands of very few people. The audience for news has been fragmented and polarized. In the US, that divides between the Fox News/Drudge Report/Rush Limbaugh vision of the world and The New York Times/MSNBC/Huffington Post way of seeing things. It’s creating a world of misinformation, ignorance, division, and bumper sticker insults offered as wisdom. Meanwhile, the celebrities, business people and politicians covered in the “news” know the game is no longer about telling the truth but about working the refs.

Everyone lies. (And unless they are on our team, it’s unforgivable.)

Facts don’t matter. (That one’s true. Mitt Romney told us.)

You can’t trust anyone. (Not journalists. Not the government. Not the media. Not even Lance Armstrong.)

We now live in an age in which the internet is the newspaper. Where the paper of record has been replaced by the tweet of the moment. Where a journalist’s success is measured not by the quality of her work, but by the traffic it generates. Where a fake news story from The Onion becomes a major feature in China’s People’s Daily and we think that’s funny. Where twice-elected President Obama is either a pragmatic centrist or Hitler, depending on the audience. Where honest debate is polluted by PR people or drowned by trolls. And nothing ever stops. And making sense of the world is literally impossible. It’s an age where you’re either a cynic or a dittohead, so you better pick a side. And, in case I wasn’t clear, print is dead.

Thus concludes The One True Account of the History of News. If you don’t like it, read a different version. Or write one yourself. Believe what you want. The news is all yours.

Do you think that the transition to digital print is a positive or negative move? Leave a comment below..

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Comments (2)

  1. Robin:
    Feb 15, 2013 at 07:22 PM

    I think full transition to digital would be horrible. It looks as though that's where the news business is headed as managing print & digital could be too much cost. I still continue to love reading books, the paper & magazines in print form & hope I will always have that option.

  2. Rae:
    Feb 28, 2013 at 07:47 PM

    I prefer print over digital. But I also believe at this point it's simply a matter of preferred delivery than one of integrity and accuracy.

    For me reading the paper is a personal ritual. Tactile. The crinkling of the pages when turned. And these days it's a luxury to be able to take the downtime. So I do get the bulk of my news digitally. I don't prefer it, but I also don't think it's a bad thing in and of itself. It's only a tool. Which leads me back to your horrible truths ...

    We stream and watch dvd's but haven't watched television in 18 years, so we've escaped that head pounding. Online I go to great effort to stay away from well known bias, even if they're on 'my' side of an issue. I make the same effort to read opposing viewpoints and accounts. Only searching out those outlets that support my own beliefs doesn't bring me any closer to the truth and is a waste of time. Unless we just want to be right.

    It can make one weary. Wading through the lies, bias, propaganda, shills and trolls. With trust that has long since been breached. Everybody's suspect. Sometimes it feels like too much effort for too little pay off. And at the end of the day I'm never quite sure if I'm any better informed than I was when I was blissfully ignorant.

    But I'll keep plugging away just the same. Because the truth matters.

    Thanks for your great piece.

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By Richard Hine on Feb 13, 2013

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