Toward a Definition of News
The future of news is about adapting to change.
It's also about remembering that the news is what's important, not the medium.
As a kid growing up in West Texas, I had a paper route and lived in a home where we had one paper delivered every day and sometimes bought a big-city paper (that being Lubbock or Amarillo) on Sundays.
News meant newspapers to me then, and I conflated the two. A simple concept: Newspaper equals news.
As a young man -- coming of age in the civil rights era, during the Vietnam War, before and after the summer of love -- I was captivated by my changing world. I was a news junkie in college and wanted somehow to change the world -- to make it a better place.
When it came time to pick a career I chose newspapers -- a place where I could be an intimate spectator of this changing world and have an impact on it at the same time.
Newspapers and news. They were the same thing, weren't they?
They're not. They weren't then and they aren't now.
News is the ultimate manifestation of a human desire to know what's going on, to make sense of the world, to catch up on the latest. It can be a letter from home, gossip at the water cooler, or a phone call from a friend you haven't heard from in a while. It's a stock pick or a wanted poster. Sometimes news comes dressed as entertainment -- as in movie reviews and baseball scores.
News is information I need. It's intelligence that gives me an edge on the competition. It's knowledge to help me prepare for the worst. It's facts that set me straight, trends that show me where things are headed, predictions that may (or may not) come true. It's wisdom that helps me live better.
News isn't, strictly speaking, a newspaper. Or a television broadcast. It isn't an Internet site or a podcast.
Those are forms. They're just various means of conveyance.
Water travels over rocks and through pipes. It can fill a glass and be poured through the air. But it's not rock, or copper, or glass or air.
News has a power, a value, that transcends the means it uses to get to people.
But that doesn't mean the means are unimportant. To deliver the news efficiently, to tell a story well, journalists today must know and be able to use every attribute of every medium.
In trying to make that point I said in a recent speech about news that I was platform agnostic.
My friend Tom Rosenstiel, who runs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, took issue with the phrase.
When we say we're agnostic about platform, Rosenstiel said, "It seems as if we're not sure of the value of our platform, or as if all platforms are the same."
They're not the same. The Internet, for instance, is a potentially richer platform for storytelling than ink on paper.
Rosenstiel's analysis is that the basic newspaper story has about five elements to it: the narrative, headlines, photos, graphics and some sort of info-box sidebar. The average Web story has 25 possible elements.
His point is that if a journalist starts work on a news story with newspaper publication in mind, she limits the scope of the story to the means of production: ink on paper and the five basic elements.
But if she starts the story thinking it's headed for the Web, she's thinking about a broader range of elements -- audio, video, animated graphics, about sharing original documents and complete interview transcripts with readers -- things that simply aren't possible in the world of ink on paper.
In that way, she's open to a broader story and to sharing it in more ways with readers, in some ways making her reporting more transparent and thus, perhaps, more credible.
Our job with every medium, or platform, through which we share the news, is to know it, and to choose it deliberately because it's best for the story, or best for the user. Not because we're platform agnostic, but because we're platform believers.
In a recent conversation with a group of staffers at the newspaper where I work, we were talking about the importance of news and the need -- but also the difficulty -- of moving forward and accepting that being a journalist today means not only reporting and writing, or taking photos, but also thinking about video and audio, and chats and blogs and podcasts.
"How long will this take, do you think?" asked one staffer. I just looked at him, so he asked again: "When will we get where we're going?"
The answer, of course, is that we never get there. We're always on the way.