What is News? (and How to Become a Part of It)

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broadcast-1545372-1920x1440Sometimes I feel as though I live this ethereal existence, floating (or seeping?) between the world of the news and the world of those who want to be in the news. That I feel this way offers testament to how much journalism has changed since the days of “Uncle Walter.” Actually, it reveals how flawed our vision of this “unbiased” news narrative has been.

Several items over the past week have prompted these thoughts. The first was a headline that came out in the waning days of January proclaiming The Drudge Report was about to surpass CNN in terms of on-line pageviews. According to an article published by MediaPost (“10 Publishers Account for  All Online News,” January 28, 2016), last year The Drudge Report had 8.5 billion page views, barely behind CNN’s 8.8 billion (MSN and ESPN at 27 billion and 23 billion respectively topped the list). The data was collected by a firm called SimilarWeb and is available on their site (which I’ve linked to in the article title above).

Here’s the odd thing: The Drudge Report does not report the news the way we’ve been taught news should be reported. Rather than digging up sources and producing original content, The Drudge Report merely links to someone else’s stories, sometimes changing their headlines, sometimes keeping the original headlines.

For a long time, mainstream journalists scoffed at the idea of The Drudge Report. Matt Drudge, however, proved his power when he scooped Newsweek of their own story during the Clinton (that would be Bill) scandals of the 1990s. In effect, Drudge became the publisher of a Newsweek story that the magazine’s editors decided not to print; thus, introducing the very practical question of whether anyone really owns the news, or is the news owned by everyone?

Perhaps that should be considered the watershed event that forever exposed for all to see the lie of “unbiased” journalism, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Of relevance, though, is this fact: Of the fabled original “Big Three” in newsweeklies, only Time Magazine survives in print. The other two, US News and Newsweek, long ago went straight to digital, the former now under the wing of a dying Yahoo, the latter barely able to maintain a pulse in the world of email spam. (Incidentally, Time finished in the top 50 of SimilarWeb’s survey with 1.1 billion page views.)

The Drudge Report is what’s called a “content aggregator” and features “curated content.” Many believe this is the future of content (and news) distribution. A trusted “curator” (and, for those of you who don’t know, The Drudge Report is considered the “go-to” site by Washington insiders from both parties) will scan the headlines and select those he feels his audience would be most interested in. Imagine it as like a Reader’s Digest for news. More importantly, it’s different from, say, CNN’s Headline News because it considers all news publishers. It doesn’t limit itself just to content produced within one company.

How does The Drudge Report differ from Twitter? I saw a recent online survey that asked if Twitter was “news.” The consensus was Twitter was not news. This is right and wrong. Twitter is not “news” in the sense that “news” is a neatly packaged article that you can read and immediately understand. Twitter, on the other hand, is more like “news” than what you see reported as news.

Twitter is “real time” news. It’s like being there – live – at the scene as the action unfolds. How will the story end? You don’t know because you’re still in the middle of it. What Twitter does is allow millions of people to report what they see as they see it.

Remember those helicopters showing OJ Simpson’s slow speed car chase? That’s what Twitter is, except there are many more helicopters! And you don’t need a journalism degree to report from those helicopters – anybody can offer their on-the-scene view. The phrase used to describe this is “crowd-sourced” journalism. It, in effect, removes the reporter or editor as the middleman of the news. It’s raw news directly from the source to the audience. It’s the ultimate “we report, you decide” concept.

So what does this say about the news? I was speaking with Teresa Lehr, next month’s speaker for the Honeoye Falls – Town of Mendon Historical Society. She’s researching the history of “Rochester’s Great Tonsil Massacre” that occurred in the early 20th century. Back then four newspapers covered the City of Rochester. She told me she can’t rely on any of those papers for real “news” because they “managed the news.” In other words, they all spoke with one editorial voice, never questioning each other (hence, again busting the myth of “unbiased” news reporting). Instead, she prefers community papers. Not only were they independent, but they featured, for want of a better term, “gossip” columns.

These “day in the life” tidbits were often two or three sentences submitted by readers to the editor. Too short to be considered a letter to the editor, they were compiled into a single article. In a sense, the editor “curated” this raw news and presented it in a way that could be comfortably digested by the reader. If you remember Peter Taub’s column or Carol Ritter’s column in the Gannett papers, that’s what I’m talking about. Our own Sentinel used to have Shirley’s “On Our Street” column that featured the same idea. Teresa Lehr believes columns like “On Our Street” and stories about a typical “day in the life” represent the kind of raw news most valuable to historians.

So, the questions to you are these: Are you interested in being a part of the news? Are you interested in being a part of history?

 

Get ready, because very shortly we’re going to give you the opportunity to do just that!

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