Purpose-driven news

PARADIGM SHIFT

If the changes taking place in news media are in fact as revolutionary as the Gutenberg press, then maybe we could all use a moment or two to take in the perspective this statement should give us.

Take a deep breath and hold off on all claims to discovering the future of news along with snazzy catch phrases (i.e. “link journalism,” “network journalism,” I’m sure there’s even a “tweet journalism” out there.)

While the components needed to build the future ecosystem of news media continue to evolve and emerge, we can take this time to think about a fundamental principle that should, anyways, be clearly defined in the minds of producers and consumers of news media.

What is the purpose of news in our lives?

For this exercise, I think it is especially important for those of us who work in media professions to take ourselves out of that frame of reference for a moment. If you don’t know the difference between normative and explanatory theories, now might be a good time to look it up (especially in the context of objectivity.)

PURPOSE-DRIVEN NEWS

Knowing the purpose of news is an important element of a conceptual framework of the press. Newspapers online and in print have been notorious for adopting new “gimmicks” to attract or retain readers, then casting the practices aside when they don’t work. This sort of erratic behavior suggests an industry that does not have the guidance and organizing theory that a sound conceptual framework provides.

Are there overarching principles that could construct such a framework, one that is impervious to powerful forces of change like the Internet has brought about? For starters, knowing the purpose of the social interaction that we call news-sharing would lay the structure of the public sphere on a firm foundation, giving a very different shape to, incidentally, both the news outlets and the community. A lot of social imagination is necessary for this mental exercise, and in such a world we may not even find ourselves in the predicament we are in now, but since we’re considering new perspectives, we should not limit ourselves. How a community conceptualizes its media is just as important as how it conceptualizes its government, its schools, its agriculture and so on. After all, its communication systems count as social institutions, even if they have been commodified. Perhaps if we prioritized the institutions, mass media would not rank at the top, but there is a strong argument as to why we should not fragment our mass media from the rest of our social concerns.

MEDIA ARE THE MESSAGE

The assumptions behind the saying, “the media are the message,” point to a high degree of coherence in what communicators do. Think about how often recently the news has been the story. Mass communications are both the public sphere (the media) and conduits of the public sphere (the messages). It’s like reading a page of letters rearranged from a Shakespeare sonnet. Without the message to give the medium meaning, the latter is useless. It works the other way, as well. Without some tradition of communication, whether through the medium of oral stories or a staged play, the content could not travel from sender to receiver.

It seems, then, that the purpose of media is to transmit meaning. And since negotiating meaning is the very definition of community, mass media is essential in society.

This is the obvious juncture to talk about whether media are controlled by social interests or commercial interests. When discussing the content of mass media, many are quick to point out that certain content sells more than others, and media simply supply what is demanded. I would ask whether the current media corporations actually supply demand. On this note, further down I do talk a little bit about how media have the power to create space in public discourse. We could go off on a tangent here and explore how the practice (opposite to media’s purpose) of developing content to deliver a medium is becoming increasingly popular, but let’s save that for another day, or maybe someone could explain to me how exactly an audience buys into that.

VIRTUAL TOWN HALL MEETINGS

The purpose of the news media could be likened to the function of a town hall meeting, a role these meetings played to an even greater extent before mass communications. People gathered together to be informed and make decisions. This process of consultation among neighbors and citizens built consensus within a population, which built community. As populations grew, newspapers, and now online news sources, eventually took on this mass communication process.

As communities grow, their need for information and decision-making is organized into formal government; yet, the consensus factor cannot be given over to an elected body. I’m not talking about some propaganda-induced, superimposed, monolithic, bipartisan meaning of consensus. I’m talking about the agreement that comes when a group has consulted on all viewpoints and decides together on a course of action with the confidence that none of the members will set out on a mission to discredit the decision or sabotage the efforts to carry it out. That is true interactive media, taking place in the minds of each citizen. This complex, yet natural, process of community is diminished as citizens lose access to information and become disempowered in collective decision-making. The need for newspapers to facilitate consensus in the community likewise fades. In concert, mass media and community become hollow, sometimes even meaningless, or message-less, like a scrambled Shakespeare sonnet.

NEWS MEDIA: A COMMUNITY SPACE

There is a creative power in mass communications. It creates a space that then must be filled. The space is not necessarily determined by specific social or economic needs of a community, just its primal need for making meaning of the world around it; so, if it is not clear to a community how to use its media, then corporations, interest groups, retailers and political factions fill this space with meaning-making that fits their needs. This is why it is so important for media professionals to know the purpose of news, and of course, for media producers and consumers to be aware, to think about it.

IF NEWS IS IMPORTANT, IT WILL FIND ME

The thoughts in this post were triggered by an article I read today on this idea that if news is important enough, a person will know about it eventually. The assumptions underlying such a statement seem rooted in a consumerist worldview, which is dependent on a complete lack of a sense of purpose, except that of consuming. This is related to the direction that news media seems to be headed—I guess now we can go back to theorizing on the future of journalism—the path of civic or participatory media. The community members are engaged producers of news again, much like they were in town-hall meetings, empowered to share information, make decisions and reach consensus to build up their communities.

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6 thoughts on “Purpose-driven news

  1. Lately I’ve begun thinking of news in the context of groceries. It helps me strip away my biases, developed over 30 years in the newspaper business.

    In both industries, the consumer is being given an opportunity to adopt a new delivery system, and presumably to make a complex judgment involving convenience, suitability, quality and cost.

    For years, grocery chains have been delivering groceries through online services, often free or at a very low cost. Yet few consumers have been willing to change delivery systems. They still prefer driving to the store, inspecting the groceries themselves, scoping out bargains, making spontaneous choices. They want to know what products everyone else is seeing, what’s new and improved, so to speak, and choose accordingly.

    By contrast, the public’s rush to embrace the news model of free online delivery threatens the economic viability of the original delivery system. Within the news industry, the slide in newspaper readers is often attributed to the superior convenience, cost and timeliness of the online model.

    Yet none of those factors correspond neatly to the grocery-store model. Home delivery of groceries is arguably more convenient, cheaper (when your gas and time are taken into account) and more timely (you can schedule groceries to arrive at a specific time).

    What’s different?

    I presume, learning from the grocery-store model, that the single greatest factor behind the shift toward online news consumption may be acquiring greater personal control.

    Online news consumers believes they have greater choices and greater control, just as they do when visiting the market. The ritual of newspaper readership — flipping through the pages and examining the articles selected by editors — must seem by comparison to be burdensome, inadequate or stultifying. Certainly it must be less satisfying. Just as filling out a form online — checking “2 lbs bananas” — must be less satisfying than visiting the market in person and examining each banana for bruises.

    From this analysis, and others even more glib and shallow, I conclude that the shifts under way in news consumption speak to a greater desire for personal control, and that this dynamic already supercedes and will evntually override the tensions between corpoorate and social control.

  2. A thought provoking article that brings to mind the concept of a newspaper that is thrice sold: once to advertisers, then to readers and finally to paper recyclers. What is the product? I like your point that a medium exists for a purpose, and that once it exists it will be used, if not for its original purpose, then for unintended and probably unwelcome purposes. Mohandas Gandhi knew that the first need of his community was a newspaper. I’m sure that he didn’t go out to sell advertising. That was not the purpose. The purpose was to create a community. The newspaper medium fulfilled that purpose.

  3. Gigi,
    Enjoyed the site — it’s wonderful you’re wrestling with these critical concepts.

    I might suggest you look at James Carey’s work on news, community and ritual (Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society) and along those lines, work by the Chicago School of Sociology to which Carey points (Dewey, Park). There’s a good chapter on these philosophers and their work as it relates to media in Czitrom’s book “Media and the American Mind.” Both Carey and the Chicago school scholars talk about viewing news as meaning making rather than as information transmitting (a “ritual model” rather than a “transmission model”). It fits well with your ideas, and I mention the Chicago School because of their critical role in developing the foundation for today’s public journalism, for Carey’s work on communication and community, etc. And the “Toronto School” scholars, especially Harold Innis, might be interesting for you as well. They hold that changes in communication forms shape patterns of social interaction and power (from some of your ideas here, it seems you may have already lighted on them.)
    Anyway, beautiful job here — keep it up!

  4. …and meant to mention — I’d suggest you also consider critiques of the idea of media nurturing community through public meaning making. The main critique derives from those who focus on the role of power in society, particularly the idea of hegemony. What is community cohesion and collective meaning-making to one scholar (like Carey) may be ascribed to hegemonic powers constraining the frameworks within which we consider and discuss our society, its problems and possibilities, by other scholars (like those in the Frankfurt School). Carey has been singled out for criticism by these “critical scholars.” I’m actually more in the Carey camp, but it’s important to consider the “dark side” of community cohesiveness as well…just food for thought.

  5. Pingback: CoverItLive… before it’s dead. « Media and community

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