HOW MUCH NEWS can a person absorb in a day, an hour or a lifetime? There should be measurement units like stories-per-hour or cubic talking heads.
There is research on the mechanics of memory but whether it’s relevant to our species’ appetite for news isn’t clear. All we know is that the way people here and across the nation receive news continues to change rapidly. So is the definition of what consumers now call news.
This week I had the pleasure of talking with a class at Columbia-Greene Community College about newspapers. These young adults were well-informed and politely curious. Only one or two said they had recently read a newspaper. They get their news on their mobile devices.
Note to memory: Don’t call it a “cell phone.” That’s such a 1990s term. It doesn’t capture the way society now orders life around these digital machines. We have 11,000 visitors a month on our website and almost 40% of them read us on mobile devices.
Why’s that a big deal? After all, you hold your mobile device in your hand and navigate with your fingers. That sounds a lot like a newspaper.
But it isn’t the same, for all the obvious reasons, like the audio and video and links to other digital sources. It isn’t a newspaper because you use the same device to find additional info… blah, blah, blah. But really it isn’t a newspaper because connectivity encourages us to imagine we’re well informed based on the volume of information that confronts us rather than the source and quality of that information.
It’s possible that young people like those in the Columbia-Greene Community College classroom will force changes on the media landscape. Perhaps at some point they will demand more control over their mobile device newsfeeds, very possibly through regulation of Facebook and its successors. They may someday grasp the extent to which the social media industry isn’t doing them any favors nor is that industry sharing the rewards. They might introduce laws to shine sunlight on the algorithms that calculate who gets to see what.
Where does that leave newspapers? Some will endure as niche products funded by elites or by philanthropy or possibly by using what pundits call a “new business model.” That new model has never been clearly described because nobody has yet developed one.
We plan to stick around. Despite all the gloomy news from the news industry, our circulation is growing. We will have to adapt to changing technology and tastes. That’s what a community newspaper should do. But communities still matter here, and they are our focus. We’re also one of the oldest counties in the state by average age, which means a lot of people here grew up reading newspapers. We believe this aging population doesn’t see mobile devices and newspapers as offering a one-or-the-other choice. For our key demographic, anyway, there’s room for both.
In the not too distant future one of the current Big Three oligarchy of Facebook, Google and Amazon–or an emerging competitor–will unleash a functional cyber-journalist. That’ll be a kick in the pants. The problem with a robo-reporter won’t be the quality of its work but the volume. The cyber-journalist won’t need a good night’s sleep once in a while, just a recharge and a squirt of synthetic lubricant and it will be ready to hop on the nearest drone and buzz off to the next story. Talk about information overload.
Newspapers can thrive but not as historical artifacts from the Carbon Age. In a democracy this form of public communication has proved to be exactly what the founders of the nation intended–an independent restraint on the power of government.
For the last 300 years one of the values of printing newspapers with ink on paper is that governments don’t know what you read or when you read it. In this era, when corporations have wealth and powers that rival the government, newspapers remain one of the few options people have to learn about current events without surrendering their right to privacy to the digital industry and the government.
Or, maybe this age of privacy has already ended, with all of us buried under too much information. But we’re not ready to let rights to privacy and knowledge go for ourselves or our neighbors. There’s room here for our legacy readers as well as younger people who share our belief that there’s something of value here for those who can straddle both the digital and ink-stained worlds.