Central to the angst and concern expressed about the future of news media and journalism is a fundamental conviction that everyone should be regular news consumers and consume similar amounts of news and information. Those of us who are interested in news and its social contributions appear to believe that everyone should be similarly engaged with news and public affairs.
When one reads articles and blogs and listens to speakers at industry conferences, one sees that the belief is driven by a number of arguments, fraught with self interest and wishful thinking:
- News is our business. We want everyone to consume so we can make profit and increase the value of our enterprises.
- News provides employment for us. We want jobs and the more opportunities.
- News helps keep us socially, economically, and politically active. Everyone else should be active.
- Democracy requires an informed public. The public is becoming less informed because of the current conditions in news provision.
The first two reasons for wanting everyone to consume news are clearly ones of self interest and not very compelling reasons why anyone should consume news. The latter two seem more credible arguments, but they are imaginary.
Most people are not highly active in society and don’t engage in the variety of activities that influence the structures and institutions of social, economic and political life. They have never done so; they do not do so now; and they never will. The majority are content to get on with their lives with minimal levels of engagement in politics and community life. Their primary economic activities are employment and consumption. Social engagement is typically limited to a few close friends, posting on social media, supporting sports teams, and participating in a limited number of clubs or churches—although participation in the latter gas declining significantly for decades.
Most people are content with a limited amount of news and information that has immediate impact on their lives, relying on others to provide leadership about what to do about public affairs and community issues. Indeed the history of the newspaper in the nineteen and twentieth centuries was based on adding non-news sections to appeal to those with limited news interest. When television news developed in the Twentieth Century news directors figured out most viewers didn't really like news after losing money on news operations for its first tens years. The presentation and types of stories offered in television news soon changed dramatically.
For the bulk of the population, regular and significant news consumption— much less paying for news—provides little satisfaction of their needs. We might normatively think they and their lives can be improved by news consumption, but they perceive little reason to do so. This does not, however, mean they ignore news altogether. Most of the public is content to get a quick general overview of major events or salient issues through limited exposure to news through free television, radio, and digital services.
There are clearly differing benefits from the situational awareness provided by news and the amounts of situational awareness needed by members of society. Not everyone wants news regularly and we cannot expect them to suddenly shift their behavior. We do well to remember that when we carry on discussions of the future of news provision, business models of news organizations, and pay models of news.