For some time newsmakers and educators have stressed things like “civic duty” and being a “global citizen” in trying to convince young people to consume world news. The problem here is these entreaties couldn’t sound crustier to a nineteen-year-old—take it from someone who regularly teaches nineteen-year-olds. There must be a better way to show young Americans less abstract benefits of following global news.
I wrote in a recent Borders & Bylines column that describing journalism as a force for global innovation may help news organizations procure financial backing for their efforts. In the same vein, talking about journalism as the embers of innovation might encourage young thinkers to devour more of it.
Wide-ranging information consumption makes innovation more likely. A key moment in the birth of the Microsoft Corporation, for example, came in 1975 when Paul Allen, then a college dropout, read an article in Popular Electronics about the completion of a minicomputer called the Altair 8800, and then raced to tell longtime friend and computer co-zealot Bill Gates, with whom Allen then wrote programming code for the new device.
While it is important not to overstate the benefits of news consumption—most news junkies aren’t billionaires—it is both useful and appropriate to highlight the link between innovative thinking and copious information consumption across a range of disciplines.
While news is today primarily discussed as a public good, which markets typically do not demand enough of (especially young markets), such a shift in language would help position news as fuel for a potential private good: kindling that can enrich creativity. This is not disingenuous. Journalists “must make the significant interesting and relevant,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism. News is both a public good as well as one that can assist private gains. Using the language of innovation to promote news consumption is just another way to discuss the value of journalism.
“There is a direct link between the commitment to a vigorous free press (as well as free speech) and a high level of societal creativity and innovation,” Lee Bollinger wrote in CJR’s July/August edition.
Exploration of many different topics is often an innovative precondition. “Edison, Darwin, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and van Gogh all regularly switched between different projects, occasionally in different fields, possibly accelerating an exchange of ideas and seeding their minds for new insights,” wrote Scott Berkun in The Myths of Innovation, a book that doggedly challenges the view that innovation comes as a cerebral flash that has few or no antecedent causes. There are no doubt crucial sparks in the development of innovations, as Paul Allen’s discovery of the Altair suggests, but innovators still consistently need diverse information coursing in their veins, and breaking ground usually takes many years of information consumption and experimentation. Allen told 60 Minutes in April that, upon reading the article about the Altair computer, he said to Gates, “This is the computer we’ve been waiting for.” Waiting for. Allen had spent likely thousands of hours reading about and experimenting with diverse technologies prior to that moment.
“Many successful innovators work passionately, but periodically step back and ask, ‘What is happening in the world that impacts my goals?’” Berkun wrote. Gates literally takes periodic reading vacations, absconding to read a stack of books about a diverse set of topics, and to ponder and combine knowledge from different fields.
Smart. In the 1838 volume Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge,” and global journalism offers some of the widest combinations of the world’s problems and progress.
Journalism is an enemy of insularity, and information insularity is an enemy of innovative breakthroughs. While it is true that innovation cannot be neatly scheduled like a dental appointment, conditions that increase innovative likelihood are worth embracing.
Google famously encourages employees to take breaks from their workload and engage in wholly unrelated, but pro-social, activities, such as solving puzzles or exercising. Google employees also may spend one-fifth of their work week devoted entirely to research of their choosing. Ongoing, diverse information consumption is part of the innovator’s life. Linus Pauling, the only innovator ever to win two unshared Nobel Prizes, once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Modern news organizations must do more to court young audiences, of course; the task of showing young people journalism’s worth doesn’t fall solely on educators or essayists like me. The fact that NBC’s Meet the Press moved its Sunday broadcast from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. EST suggests they’ve all but publicly quit attempts to court slumbering twenty-somethings.
Not all news is as inaccessible and stodgy to young Americans as the Sunday wonk shows, though, and young people would likely consume more news of current events if arguments urging them to do so were, well, more current.
Few young Americans are adrenalized by words like “civic responsibility,” or “classic democratic theory,” but when the benefits of a life of news consumption are expressed as fuel for creative motion, young people’s ears may perk up a bit more from beneath their headphones.