The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered…. There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge.                                                                               — Don DeLillo, White Noise


                                                                                                                   

In the summer of 1945, the newspaper deliverymen of New York City went on strike. For seventeen days, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers found themselves deprived of their daily news fix.

When interviewed during those days about the role of newspapers in their lives, and the challenges of being without them, by the behavioral scientist Bernard Berelson, the New Yorkers initially responded with the traditional abstractions about the general value of news: the importance of keeping abreast of national and international affairs, the role of that knowledge in democracy, etc. When pressed, though, their story often changed: what people really missed, Berelson discovered, was not specific news itself so much as the idea and the act of news—the daily ritual of reading the paper, the interaction it facilitated with others, the simple “serenity,” in Theodore Glasser’s term, of facing the day feeling informed. Readers, Berelson concluded, shared a “ritualistic and near-compulsive” connection to their daily newspapers. The void left in their absence wasn’t merely journalistic; it was also social. And personal. And, in some ways, spiritual.

Berelson’s analysis documented what we denizens of the burgeoning ecosystem often shorthanded as “the new media landscape” understand instinctively: that news is much more than information. That it is more, even, than a cultural commodity. Berelson highlighted news’s status as a source both of intimacy and anxiety: news is not only a reflection of the world we live in. It is also a reflection of ourselves.

Which means that “the news” is notoriously difficult to define—and, so, to understand. The broad descriptions that feed our general comprehension of the news range, indeed, from the whimsical (“if a man bites a dog, it’s news”), to the practical (news happens “when the life of anyone…departs from ordinary paths, or when events worth telling about occur”), to the even more practical (news is “anything that interests a large part of the community and has never been brought to its attention before”), to the political (“what somebody somewhere wants to suppress”), to the polemical (“a reflection of the passions of the day”), to the poetical (“to see life steady and see it whole”), to the downright paradoxical (a “blend of chance and intention, normality and catastrophe, instrument and accident, expectation and surprise, narrative and interjection”). Et cetera.

Definitions vary in large part because the functions of news themselves vary: even before the term “aggregation” made its way into the journalistic vernacular, news was an amalgamated enterprise, with political pieces and gossip and pragmatic, ‘news you can use’ updates often sharing space in news reports. Outlets like the old New York Herald, the paper’s founder and publisher James Gordon Bennett noted, provided news for “the merchant and man of learning, as well as the mechanic and man of labor.” Even the Acta Diurna—the daily newsletters Caesar distributed to keep Roman citizens apprised of government decisions—featured, along with their public affairs-related updates, reports about crime, sports, and sensational happenings.

The democratization of information, it turns out, is in some ways at odds with democracy itself.

Now, though, in these heady days of barrier-toppling, we’re seeing a movement way from the alloyed assumptions of the past—and toward the narrower interests of the niche: partisan political platforms, narrow-topic outlets, hyperlocal and microlocal sites, RSS and Twitter feeds, mine magazine, etc. Newspapers, general-interest magazines, and broadcasters, on the other hand, are generally shrinking, splitting, or refashioning themselves as specialty outlets. When, that is, they’re not dying out altogether. There is a sense of wandering now. Even the national news outlets, those erstwhile bastions of informational communality, are narrowing their purview according to topic area and/or political slant: Newsweek’s new aim at an elite audience, for example, or, on television, Fox News’s and MSNBC’s increasing embrace of partisan postures.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.