What is “the news”? Good question

by Mathew on April 17, 2008 · 13 comments

There have been a number of threads floating around the blogosphere recently that have to do with traditional media vs. “new media,” and the differences between the two — something that this article in the New York Observer got me thinking about again. There was the TechCrunch post about ads in Twitter, which was somewhat lacking in facts; there was the idea that journalism online has become much more of a process or continuum rather than an end in itself; and then there was the whole concept of “if the news is that important, it will find me,” which I wrote about.

I wanted to try and pull a few of those together because, well… that’s how I roll. Plus, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit, and writing about it helps me think. So bear with me (or not). If you look at some of the comments on my post about the Twitter ads story, as well as on other posts about it, you can see people talking about how it “wasn’t a story,” and suggesting — as Nate Westheimer did — that traditional media, with editors and so on, would never run something like that. I’d like Nate to read the New York Observer piece and see if he still feels the same way.

Would a newspaper or TV station or magazine have run with a Twitter story like TechCrunch did? Maybe not. But the fact is that plenty of poorly-sourced or single-sourced or anonymous-sourced stories show up in newspapers all the time — and not just the Enquirer or People magazine, but in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. And it’s not only stories about nuclear weapons in Iraq either — it’s stories that are about celebrities, or wealthy Wall Street types, or politicians. Sometimes, a story is just too good to pass up, even if it’s shaky.

That’s why it’s actually a good thing that news is becoming more of a process (which it always has been). Instead of trying to pump rumours and innuendo into full-fledged stories that deserve a premier spot in the paper, journalists can toss things into the ether when they think there is more to a story, and then update the story as it develops, something Mike Arrington said at mesh 2007 that he sometimes does. This is frequently messy, which is why I like to adapt the old saying about “if you love the law or sausages, don’t watch either one being made” to apply to the media. It’s not pretty, but it is occasionally true.

And that brings me back to the idea of “news.” What do we mean when we use that word, or when we say something like “if the news is that important, it will find me?” Some people responded to my post on that concept by saying they weren’t confident that “real” news would find them, by which I think they meant news of the U.S. election, or war in Sudan. But that’s only one small part of the definition of “news” — something that every person is probably going to define differently, and may even define differently depending on what day it is.

Is the Web to blame for creating “news” out of nowhere, as the New York Observer article suggests? I don’t think so. Newspapers have been doing that for about a hundred years. The Web is probably accelerating and amplifying that phenomenon — but at the same time, a proliferation of sources is also helping to nip such stories in the bud a lot sooner.

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