Excerpt from Chapter 1. In the Age of Darwinian Content, You Are Your Own Editor
"It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper." —JERRY SEINFELD
"Control your own destiny or someone else will." —JACK WELCH
You used to be able to count your daily news sources on one hand. If you were the average American, you read your daily newspaper, watched the evening news, and subscribed to several magazines. In the car, maybe, you caught some news on the radio.
It’s not for nothing that Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were household words to my parents’ generation. These guys weren’t talking heads. They were editors. Along with their staffs, they picked what they thought we needed to know that evening. And then packed it neatly into thirty minutes. Weekends, well, that was leisure time. News happened Monday to Friday.
Newspaper editors played the same role.
In 1994, I became managing editor of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, a daily of about 200,000 circulation in the Twin Cities, with more than two hundred people working in the newsroom. Managing editor, as in M.E., as in the second-ranking editor. A key M.E. responsibility: making a final decision on what went on Page One the next morning. At first, it was both exhilarating and anxiety producing. Knowing that the pick I’d ratify would determine what some 400,000 readers saw first thing the next morning gave pause.
I was a gatekeeper.
Today the familiar gatekeepers—top editors at daily papers, those who put together the evening news broadcasts—have lost their audiences and their sway. Those newspaper gatekeepers used to bring their readers the world—national news, international news, business news, sports news, entertainment news, and local news. Now it’s that last area—local—that may be their refuge from the Internet storm.
For decades, more than 1,500 daily newspapers—most of them, chain-owned—created their own national pages, their own world pages, their own business pages, their own national entertainment pages. Sure, corporate offices tried pushing economies of scale, suggesting pages that were centrally produced, at far less cost. Most local editors rebelled, though, and the work most industries would consider redundant stayed in place for a long time.
“We’ll tell our readers what’s important,” local editors bellowed. In fact, for all the editor concentration and cost, readers were getting a bit of New York Times lite, Washington Post lite, and Los Angeles Times lite, plus a smattering of AP and other newswires. Readers—that’s you—are no dummies and figured it out, once technology released the stranglehold of local editors. Why take your local editors’ edited, truncated-for-print versions of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and hundreds of other complete sources? Why settle for New York Times lite from your local paper?
Why, indeed? And so, many of us have migrated, at least for part of what we need to know, from the daily print paper to Internet news reading. In fact, not just many, but most. As 2008 closed, the well-regarded Pew Research Center told us that the Internet had surpassed newspapers as a national and international news source for the first time. (See “Newsonomics 101: The News Revolution by the Numbers,” page 2.)
The Internet brought that level of change in one quick decade, in less than one generation. Now readers can get the full-bore report of all of those publications and much, much more, if they know where to look (usually Yahoo, Google, and the like), for free.
That’s why we start with Law No. 1: In the Age of Darwinian Content, You Are Your Own Editor. We have now become our own gatekeepers; we no longer see the news world as a gated community.
We live in a news bubble. We don’t so much get the news as the news gets to us, sometimes surrounding us. At work, in our cars, at home—and even in elevators and at gas pumps. It’s now hard not to know what’s going on.
News of actor Heath Ledger’s death, in January 2006, traveled at the speed of the Web, the very definition of viral news. One friend told me he was amazed when his grandmother e-mailed him the news!
Now, we move among formerly separate worlds—print and broadcast, news and features, news and blogs, the deadly serious and the deadly funny—effortlessly.
We can pick from The New York Times or The Dallas Morning News or the Chicago Tribune. We can watch CNN or ABC or listen to NPR’s All Things Considered or Ira Glass’s fine feature journalism on This American Life when we have the time to tune in. Agence France Presse and Reuters bring us coverage from around the world, and the BBC, The Economist, and The Guardian reverse a couple of hundreds of years of history and recolonize America with their reporting. The blogosphere can deliver dozens of viewpoints daily, with the Huffington Post targeting progressives as Red State targets conservatives.
Miss the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, want to catch Rachel Maddow’s show, or need to catch up on the latest antinews with Stewart and Colbert? Do it online when you want to. All that and reams more get tossed together, mixed and matched, endlessly, through each twenty-four hours.
Key to this news revolution is a huge change: We’ve leapt from a point of scarcity—readers could only get to so much news and information, depending on their budget and where they lived—to a point of near universal and largely free access. Similarly, advertisers, who used to have to compete for scarce placements to reach us consumers, can now choose from a nearly infinite “inventory.” That produces this irony: The scarcity-to-plenty transformation that gives consumers great choice has limited news producers’ ability to provide that choice.
How do we get a sense of the news production that we have lost? It’s easiest to see in individual stories that may never have been published. (See “Newsonomics 101: The Impact of 828,000 Stories Not Published,” below.)
We can figure that local communities across the United States have already lost at least 20 percent of their reporting.
Yet what has been lost is, of course, hard to put your finger on.
Excerpted from Newsonomics by Ken Doctor.
Copyright © 2010 by Ken Doctor.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
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