I had a friend in college who was addicted to Coke and potato chips. Every night – studying or watching TV – he’d eat one bag of chips after another until he was too thirsty for any more. So, he’d quench his thirst with half a liter of Coke, feel pleasantly refreshed, and resume crunching chips. He’d keep this up for hours – one addiction feeding the other and both satisfying an unhealthy need.
Many of us have a similar addiction to bad news: The media feeds our insatiable need to hear about unpleasant things that could have happened to us, but didn’t. Media-delivered bad news is like the salty chips, and the confirmation that it applies to others and not us, is the Coke.
For much the same reason – that it rarely applies to us – we’re not very interested in good news, and that’s why the media reports so little of it. If we read in a newspaper the good news that ten of our neighbors were in a consortium that won the lottery jackpot, we’d probably feel happy for them, but at the same time, many of us might feel peeved for not being one of them. So for decades, the media had been dishing out bad news stories, and we’ve been greedily lapping them up.
Things are changing. After gorging on bad news for so long, we may finally be getting indigestion. According to Pew Research, fewer of us need a regular hit than ever before. There are two likely explanations. One is that in these uncertain times, there’s a limit to how much bad news we want, even if it’s all about other people; the second is that maybe we never really wanted so much of it in the first place, but accepted it from the traditional media because we had little choice. Whatever’s the reason, much of the traditional media have been taken by surprise and are now obliged to watch helplessly as readers, viewers and listeners drift away.
Two important developments of recent years are contributing to that drift. The first is the Internet. As a result of the Internet, an ever-increasing number of us now get our news online from a wide range of sources, none of which we feel any great loyalty towards. In addition, we’re choosing quite different material from the kind the traditional media headlines.
The second is the economic slump. In times of widespread crises, continuous bad news adds to the pervasive sense of gloom. The current global economic problems touch so many people’s lives with high unemployment, reduced pensions, depleted savings, collapsed property values, etc., that news of them is no longer just about other people’s difficulties, but also about our own, or those close to us, and few of us like constant bad news that’s too close to home.
Both those changes have caused a paradigm shift, which much of the traditional media has yet to come to terms with. Many of us now get customized news whenever we want it from aggregation services like Google News, social media and RSS feeds not just because it’s simple with smartphones, tablets, laptops and Internet-enabled televisions, but also because we can filter out the kind of news we don’t want. And it seems – at least in the current climate – that most of us are choosing more positive news over the negative kind the traditional media delivers.
Yet, whatever way this story unfolds, the fate of the traditional news media will affect most of us. Their valuable assets – the retinue of highly skilled foreign correspondents who scour the world’s hotspots, the dogged investigative journalists who unearth corruption wherever it lurks, and the expert opinion writers, whose engaging prose helps us see the world from a fresh perspective – are expensive to employ. If shifting customer preferences force their employers to slash services, many of these professionals will lose their jobs, and we could lose the easy access to invaluable resources we’ve always taken for granted.
Despite the unavoidable news media shakeup, however, I believe that the changes will be positive; that in a few years, when the dust has settled, the new paradigm will showcase and provide easy access to the best output of those journalists and columnists. Many will be freelancers then, probably working through online journalism agglomeration sites that will syndicate their output to different platforms. It’s already happening with blogs, many of which attract large numbers of followers by featuring the work of top-class writers and journalists. I’ve no doubt that we can look forward to great journalism for years to come, and more of it will be positive than has been the case up to now. In short, I believe that the future of news will be good news.