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No News Today — or tomorrow for that matter.

Posted March 26, 2024
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For most of human history, people lived in a world without news. The concept simply did not exist. The idea of news is really a 19th-century phenomenon, driven first by newspapers, and then by electronic media which brought us radio, then TV and now the web. Now, it seems, we are headed back to a world without news. Not because the technology is not there, but rather because, increasingly, people are no longer interested in news, at least in the way it is packaged now. More than 2,000 local newspapers have closed in the US in the past decade. The US has lost 2/3rds of its newspaper journalists since 2005. And don’t think that this is because people are going online to read the news. This is not really happening. According to a recent piece in the FT by Simon Kuper, news accounts for less than 3% of the content on Meta, that’s Facebook and Instagram. TikTok with its 1.9 billion users barely carries news, unless you define videos that explain that the world is flat, that no one went to the moon and that Princess Diana was actually killed by Zionists as journalism. Here in the UK, the Birmingham Post, once a great newspaper now sells 844 print copies a week. New York used to be replete with newsstands. Today they pretty much sell candy and cigarettes. A well-informed public is essential to a functioning democracy, but if people no longer read or watch the news, will democracy survive at all? The rise of authoritarian states around the world may be the product of a population that is increasingly news-free. This seems to be the case in Russia. Is there a solution to this? Twenty years ago, in the UK, there was a massive scandal involving the Post Office and a failed piece of software called Horizon which was supposed to track the finances of individual postmasters. The software showed that money was missing, but it was the software that was flawed, not the postal employees. Never-the-less, many were arrested and went to jail; people were bankrupted, lives were destroyed and some people committed suicide. The conventional news organizations, the newspapers and The BBC covered the story over and over, to no real result. Then, a few months ago, ITV, the independent network, ran a drama based on the story, Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office. It was the drama that captured the popular imagination, so much so that after two decades, Parliament was finally forced to respond, with a series of hearings. Even the Prime Minister had to address this long festering injustice. A drama. Not the news. This tells us something about how to inform the public. The old news model may no longer work. 5 million people watch NBC Nightly News every night, out of a population of 340 million. But 260 million people subscribe to Netflix, and pay for it. Many of my classmates from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University discuss ways to ‘save the news’. There is a lot of talk about non-profits or billionaires supporting news. But maybe the answer is right there — on Netflix. Every news story is actually about a character and an issue, just like in a fictional drama. When television news was invented in the 1950’s, it didn’t come with an instruction manual. No one says you have to have an anchor and a breathless ‘breaking news live’ reporter doing a stand up. Maybe there is another, better way to package news. Maybe we can marry News and Netflix. Why not? In the 1960’s, some journalists like Tom Wolfe called it ‘the new journalism’.

 


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