There's one really powerful idea shaping the future of news. It's powerful, sure, and has wide-ranging implications for how citizens inform themselves about the world around them. Powerful and yet perfectly simple.
"If news is that important, it will find me."
The reporter responsible for surfacing this gem is Brian Stelter, whom we've written about before at the Huffington Post. While in college, he wrote the hit blog TVNewser before the New York Times hired him as a media reporter.
Stelter deserves credit for picking up on the unassuming thought -- shared by a researcher conducting a focus group that included one surprisingly wise college student.
But how could it be that news will find us? Isn't that just lazy -- the stuff an MTV-obsessed college student might say? Doesn't it take a supremely self-important culture of distraction and abbreviation to wish away civic responsibilities in favor of solipsistic consumption? I mean, how presumptuous?!
It takes work to read the newspaper, doesn't it? Logging on and visiting websites works basically the same way. You have to seek out information around you. The newspaper or its website has the information. So you have to go to the information, asking to be informed. That is the news.
But one important fact about the news media landscape is different. It's a game-changer, as they say. One account (PDF) of professor W. Russell Neuman shows just how much media there is in the world. Not all of it's news, of course. We don't know how much exactly, but we do know that there's more.
And there's way more media in general. On top of that, it's increasingly difficult to distinguish between news media or pure entertainment (hello Jon Stewart!).
From 1960 to 2005, the amount of media at our disposal skyrocketed. Even if we take into consideration the fact--maybe good, maybe bad, but certainly true--that Americans consumed almost twice as much media in 2005 as they did in 1960, the amount of media is astonishing.
In 1960, if someone had a minute of attention to give to consuming media, there were 98 one-minute alternatives available. In other words, as Neuman and his co-authors Yong Jin Park and Elliot Panek write, "the ratio of supply to demand in 1960...is 98." And "that represents the fundamental metric of choice." Thus, "It is a human scale choice."
But the present-day environment is different -- like night and day. Now, "there are over 20,000 minutes of mediated content available for every minute to be consumed." In fact, "the ratio is 20,943." Of course, "that is not a human-scale cognitive challenge."
And so, the authors write, "humans will inevitably turn to the increasingly intelligent digital technologies that created the abundance in the first place for help in sorting it out." That is the challenge for a new generation of media consumers.
We cannot sift through mountains of media options the same way we remembered which radio station played our favorite tunes or which television station broadcast on which channel. In fact, we are going to have to rely on one another to discover, filter, and share -- with ingenious technologies helping us out.
But the news doesn't have to come to us only through our friends and family -- or anyone in particular. It will take all kinds of routes to us -- through one social network, onto to another, and into a blog we read for reasons totally unrelated to the news.
Children of recent decades know this deep down. Most of them do, anyhow. It's natural, now, that news and information follows a roundabout path, circling and swooping around us, in constant motion. Everywhere's a watercooler. We feel this. Not only us youngsters, of course, but we have our own set of experiences, unique to us because this is all we've ever known.
That's why it took a college student in a focus group and a young reporter to bring it to a newspaper. And that's why it's a shame that the Newseum isn't opening itself up to these simple insights from digital natives.