In his 2012 book The Filter Bubble, Pariser frets that personalized information streams allow people to avoid contrary opinions, inconvenient facts, or simply boring but important news, a tendency that Miller of the News Literacy Project says is especially prevalent among the young. Personalized streams can also prevent the accidental discovery of new items of interest that one gets from a well-edited publication or program. But Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, predicts that social media will find a way to fix that. “We’ve gone from a model that was good at discovery and bad at customization to one that is highly customizable,” he says. “The next step will be to find new ways of serendipity. It will involve some combination of returning to curators, but in a very different form.”

Zuckerman points to Maria Popova, who runs the blog Brain Pickings, as an example of a modern curator. Brain Pickings collects items of “interestingness,” over a range of creative fields from science to literature. Twitter does have an algorithm for identifying the kinds of people and outlets you follow and then suggesting similar ones, notes Zuckerman, so why can’t Twitter take the same information and offer material on subjects you would otherwise never see?

What might they pay for?

Conventional wisdom has long held that once young people become accustomed to getting something for free online, they will refuse ever to pay for it. But the historical evidence—from the launch of Apple’s iTunes service 10 years ago to The New York Times digital paywall—is more ambiguous. Certainly more sources of original reporting are grappling with their own finances: In March, The Washington Post announced it would be joining The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in erecting a paywall. “People don’t think twice about paying for cable or satellite television,” says Zuckerman. “We went from TV being absolutely free to paying for it. It’s possible mobile phone providers will create subscription products for young consumers.”

Young people may be willing to pay for once-free media if they care about it enough. Recently, Rob Thomas raised money from fans on Kickstarter to produce a movie based on his Veronica Mars series. Perhaps the same approach could be applied to news. “If Joss Whedon decides he wants to make a movie without studios, he can go right to his fans,” says boyd, referring to the producer-director and Comic-Con favorite. “So suppose [New York Times reporter] David Carr wants to do a story with high reporting costs. Can he fan-fund it?”

She answers her own question with a sweeping assessment: “All roles are being disrupted—including the role of the audience.”

The print version of this story, which appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of CJR, also included the following elements: “Old news,” “Cause and affect,” “That’s incredible,” and “Hard numbers.”

Many thanks to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — and especially to Kathy Im, director of the Media Program — for underwriting the reporting of this piece.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


More in Cover Story

Old news

Read More »

Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR