Monday, October 5, 2009

Don't Applaud the Death of the Newspaper Just Yet

A few days ago I downloaded some songs from ITunes. It was a quick and cheap transaction and within minutes I was playing selected songs from the 60s. My transaction was easy: in fact probably similar to thousands of other ITunes downloads made each day.

I precisely identified my preferences for music and the Internet delivered exactly what I wanted. And that got me thinking - there may be a downside to all this.

While the Internet is great at delivering information to suit our needs it is not so great at delivering other information which we either should know or possibly might want to know. And that's what makes the Internet so different from newspapers.

By and large our daily or weekly newspapers do a creditable job of sourcing, sifting and presenting a broad selection of news from our communities, states or from around the world. It could be information on politics, business, sports, health or a whole host of other topics. Newspapers lay out a vast array of information and each edition offers us the opportunity to learn something either we did not know or really need to know. And all the time we retain the right to skim straight past anything we don't not fancy.

The Internet on the other hand delivers only what you we ask for. That is its great strength and at the same time a fundamental weakness. By its very specificity it just might fail to introduce us to other material we could benefit from.

Some call this the echo chamber effect. Unless we take very deliberate steps to expose ourselves to contending voices, we stand in danger of seeking out only the information from the Net that supports our opinions and own world view.

This phenomen is nothing new. Research shows many of us choose to get information only from those media outlets that agree with and give voice to our opinions. Perhaps this is just part of the human condition: to hear what we want to hear. But the troubling thing about the Internet is it can silo our information with such cold efficiency.

Some social media commentators delight in predicting the demise of the newspaper. The evidence certainly seems powerful particularly in the USA and more recently here in Australia with the shrinking of Fairfax newsrooms and the iconic Trading Post disappearing from our news stands to morph into an online version.

I am more cautious about whether the predicted death of the newspaper is such a good thing. True they have their shortcomings but without print newspapers do we risk losing the daily opportunity to tune into the broad coverage of community information they provide? News that we can read over coffee, swap, share and circle with a pencil. Or even rip out and stick on the refrigerator door if it is particularly relevant to our lives. And without the traditional newspaper where will those without digital access go?

I'm a great believer in the digital age bringing in a golden age in communications. However let's be careful. We may gain something wonderfully valuable from these new digital platforms but in the process we may lose
something wonderfully valuable as well.


Craig Thomler said...

Hi Bob,

I think you're discounting the effectiveness of the internet here.

There's nothing preventing a website from presenting broader information and news to people - rather than just the specific information they are looking for.

There's also an approach that could be taken whereby you define on a website the topics you want to see news about, then assign a 'randomness factor' - a % of the news you view that is NOT within the topics you want to see. This random news could be truly random, or generated based on what people with demographics similar to you are viewing, or on some other basis.

In other words - the internet can do just as good a job - and probably much better - of providing a vast array of information, with each page view offering the opportunity for the reader to learn something they didn't know or really needed to know. And of course the reader can choose to skim right by.

At the end of the day people will choose what they want to read and view. Some will choose to only view material that supports their preconceived views. Others will seek challenging points of view.

Either way, the internet has the ability to deliver this more effectively than any specific newspaper.

It's up to we humans to remain interested in being challenged - then do so via whichever channel we choose.



PS: For your listening pleasure try sometime - it will dish up the music you like, then suggest similar music and occasionally go out on a limb with different material that you may like (and you can tell it whether you do).

Bob Crawshaw said...

Thanks for that very thoughtful comment Craig