Democratization of News and the Future of Democracy

By Neuman, W. Russell; Caruso, Denise et al. | Nieman Reports, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Democratization of News and the Future of Democracy


Neuman, W. Russell, Caruso, Denise, Ureneck, Louis, Fouhy, Ed, Wilson, Jean Gaddy, Nieman Reports


I really appreciated Allee's talk because she and I agree on one thing, which is that one of the biggest mistakes media companies are making today is to look at the on-line environment as just another package for them to distribute the information that they already generated.

Although the information itself may be the same to some degree, interactive media, it's really important to notice, is fundamentally different from mass media. I'm going to not quote McLuhan again because I know we're getting a little tired of that. But very simply put, the message of this new medium is I want what I want and nothing more."

A low estimate of more than 20 million on-line consumers today choose and control the information they want. They assume interactivity and an active role in selecting precisely what they want to read or see. So you might say that interactive media is transforming our democratic marketplace of ideas into a shopping list of topics and key-word searches. Now what does that mean? Is the interactive media buying public better informed than we shlubs who still read newspapers? I don't know, and I don't think that they know either.

But, since I do believe that the successful practice of good journalism in whatever media is one of the best ways to ensure an effective democracy. I'm going to address only three issues, although I'm sure there are at least 20 more, about electronic media that I believe will have a profound effect on how successful journalism can continue to exist in a networked world.

The first thing I'm going to talk about is the proliferation of information on networks. In order to keep this brief, I'm going to assume that we agree that the means of media production and increasingly electronic media distribution, are in the hands of the people, as well as the media companies. So, desktop publishing, fax machines and modems and increasingly desktop video and audio editing tools are really within reach of almost anyone, whether they buy them themselves or borrow them.

The result in print media is hundreds of new magazines, newsletters and alternative weeklies, as well as all the things that you get at Christmas and around the holidays from everyone who has a Macintosh and a laser printer with 4,000 fonts all used on the same page.

Now, the news business was one of the first beneficiaries of electronic production. But, ironically the efficiencies of electronic distribution have already shrunk its street value. By keeping an eye on the national wires you can take great advantage of your time zone and your competitor's scoops and easily get your version of their story into the same day's paper or broadcast.

Take the wire concept a step further into the on-line world, and it's an even grimmer picture. On a network that carries news wires from several news organizations, as most of them do, news has virtually no brand recognition. You type in the key word "news on America" on-line, for example, and you see screen after screen of headlines with no source ID. PR News Wire, The Mercury News, and a column by one computer columnist or another all look the same on the computer screen if they contain the correct topic or key word. In today's popular electronic news environment there's no equivalent of a newspaper's distinctive flag or typeface or a TV network's logo.

Last, and perhaps scariest I think to people in here and scariest to me for other reasons, is the exponential increase in raw information that's being created by regular non-journalist le. Reams of this so-called news are being posted everyday in news groups on the Internet and on various on-line services. Ordinary people can expect to be deluged with increasing amounts of this pseudo-news and it will become increasingly difficult for real news organizations to be heard above the din.

The second thing I want to talk about is on-demand information. As the sheer volume of information continues to increase, people automatically recoil from the overload. …

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