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.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

13 Responses to “What is “the news”? Good question”
  1. […] What is “the news”? Good question. There is so much to think about in this short post from Mathew Ingram. […]

  2. The consensus seems to be that the proliferation of sources in the end produces balance and accuracy, but I think you also have to look at motivation. At its crudest level it's just about chasing page views, and while you could argue that over time churning out rumour and innuendo will lead to a decline in readership, in the near term it works. Over the longer term the complete absence of barriers to entry to publishing most likely means it will keep being about cranking out sensationalized quantity.

    For me it's not really about the web being “to blame” (the web doesn't trivialize, people do…), but I just don't buy the idea that the final destination is some democratic idyll of accurate, decentralized news.

  3. I can't agree with this. At the rate that 'news' is being manufactured from little more than unsubstantiated rumor, it won't be long before people start doing that – quite literally. PR's are not stupid and they'll see this 'trend' as something to milk. At that point, everyone loses because then no-one knows what to believe. TC has a lot to answer for IMO. The good 'news' (no pun intended) is that outside the bubble, no-one cares.

  4. So, maybe journalistic objectivity is an illusion. And maybe traditional journalism gets (or got) more credit for accuracy than it was due. Then maybe Internet-age news-as-a-process is a technology-enabled adaptation to that reality. And maybe produces more reliable news stories over time through successive refinement and the embrace of the dynamic of socially constructed truth.

    But there are limits on how much time people can spend with media–or “participate” in the “news process.” The proliferation of digital information sources may well -raise- the value of product-oriented (old media) news vs. process-oriented (new media) news. If old media abondons lowers its product standards in pursuit of the process ethos, any news organization that preserves old fashioned standards may be a lifeline to the average reader, at sea in an ocean of partial information, who wants to know, with reasonable accuracy and reliability, what happened and what it means.

  5. Matthew, I'm quite sympathetic to the pressures of modern journalism. But there's a difference between those who try to get it right and those who try to get it first. Those who get it right will win the long-run… I can prove it (and will in an up coming blog post). Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts on the matter — and again, I'm sympathetic to these pressures, but I don't find any room for excuses for plain-old bad reporting, such as Riley's, in that sympathy.

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