When I was a little boy, I was an avid newspaper reader. As far back as I can remember, I would scour the newspaper every day, looking at the stories, pictures and (especially) “the funnies.” It always amazed me to realize that there was exactly enough news to fill all the pages.
When I finally started working on newspapers myself, I found out the awful truth. Stories were savagely cut to fit the space available. If an ad size changed, a story had to change to fit the space left over. The news wasn’t the primary purpose of the paper. The ads were. The news content existed only to attract readers to look at the ads.
The New York Times’ famous slogan is, “All the news that’s fit to print,” but when I was an editor, we sometimes said our slogan was, “All the news that fits, we print.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m increasingly aware that the explosion of available “news hole” for media outlets hasn’t resulted in better news for the public. Instead, it’s resulted in financially struggling media companies spreading their resources even thinner — which has produced shallow content with little original reporting and even less in the way of context.
Here’s an example. The local newspaper here is a typical medium-big metro newspaper owned by the Newhouse chain (with the same poorly designed website that all of the Newhouse papers use). I read a story there earlier today that’s a perfect example of news outlets just filling up space. Take a look. It’s called, “Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport sees less traffic in October, November.” Interesting, huh?
In this story, you learn that the number of passengers who flew through the airport dropped slightly for the past couple of months. What does this mean? Does it matter? Why are they telling me? I don’t have answers to any of those questions. They’re giving me random trivia without context and without giving me any reason to think I should find it important. It’s useless.
Why do these useless stories get written and published? In my experience, it’s typically for one of a couple of reasons. It could be that a desperate reporter looking for a story once found a press release from the airport with these statistics and he ran with it because he had nothing else to turn in. Or it could be that someone in newspaper management — the publisher or someone else tied to the business community — told some editor that it was going to be a required story. Then it became something that the newsroom had to produce and publish to please that person — without regard to the story’s importance or context or anything like that.
The Internet has an infinite amount of “space.” In the old days, if we printed more news, we needed more paper. There are no such limitations now. So journalists are expected to fill up that almost-infinite space with thinner and thinner nothingness. The resulting “journalism” is filled with trivia, but very little understanding or context. There’s little to make it worth any more than a quick scan.
I don’t run a newspaper anymore, but if I did, I’d try to make it more like a magazine — very short news summaries and much longer pieces on what things mean. What’s really going on.
That’s not going to happen, though, because many readers are upset to be given a realistic picture of the world around them. They prefer to stare at their televisions or skim through websites, picking up trivia and believing they’re informed.