To an extent, that’s a good thing: the flip side of ‘jack of all trades,’ after all, is ‘master of none.’ Aren’t consumers better served by many outlets that are specialized than by a few outlets that are generalized? And national news, even in its halcyon days—one thinks of Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America”—was never a paragon of cultural comprehensiveness. Master narratives, the closest we’ve ever gotten to macro-communal news, have been, as well, products of oligarchic exclusivity.
The matter isn’t so much the then-versus-now as it is the then-to-now: the dynamic trajectory of news’s broad movement from amalgamation to atomization. The net effect of that shift—which is also, of course, the ‘Net effect—is that consumers are increasingly presented with, and made to choose among, an expanding variety of ever-narrowing news sources. Which means in turn that, with greater ease than ever, we can limit our informational intake to facts that mirror and in many ways foster our own realities, without the necessity of externality—which is to say, without the inconvenience of being challenged in our beliefs.
It’s a common concern—the Daily Me, and all that—but commonality and validity have never been mutually exclusive. Technology, in Max Frisch’s phrase, is “the knack of so arranging the world so that we don’t have to experience it”—and as the world of news consumption increasingly defines itself according to cliques rather than commons, cognition itself becomes ever more customizable. Increasingly, we are able to choose not just which opinions to embrace, but also something more foundational: which facts to know in the first place. Increasingly, we are consumers of Montessori news.
That trend may be individually empowering, but it is limiting in the broader sense. Citizenship spins upon the axis of common information; its responsibilities require, at their base, the sense of security that comes from knowing that what I know is fundamentally similar to what you know. Serenity. An infrastructure of information consumption that fosters homophily—that allows us to cocoon ourselves in our own worldviews—undermines our ability to relate to each other, discursively, as citizens of a diverse nation. It fosters distance and dissonance. And it promotes a troubling paradox: the democratization of information, it turns out, is in some ways at odds with democracy itself.
News’s narrowing trajectories, indeed, suggest the Catch-22 of a media landscape that, in its expansion, enables its denizens to drift, gradually, apart. Where is the middle ground between monopoly and chaos? How do we balance the individually empowering elements of the niche—and the passion and participation they encourage—with news that is empowering in a wider sense of civic life? How do we reconcile the intimacy of news consumption with Berelson’s insight that news is, at is core, a solidarity good? How do we structure a system of news that acts, in varying ways, as democracy’s common denominator?
This is an attempt to answer those questions.
Ecology and Entropy
The Web, it turns out, is aptly named: it extends itself in the manner of technological gossamer, encompassing—and illuminating, and subtly transforming—all other media. The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. The structure of news is shifting, its bonds loosening, its elements slouching towards entropy.
That singular trajectory is caused, actually, by two distinct phenomena: on the one hand, proliferation; on the other, fragmentation. Not only has the Web engendered an explosion of niche news outlets (proliferation); it has also encouraged existing outlets to narrow their scope (fragmentation). With the collapse of the financial models that, in the past, incentivized aggregation—the wider the appeal, the broader the audience, and thus the higher the profits—comes not only a mass compression of the corps of professionals practicing journalism, but also the erosion of journalism’s amalgamated impulse. And, to an extent, fair enough: given news’s economic state, the most sensible business model for most outlets right now—which is to say, the best way for most outlets to survive right now—is to serve a narrow and passionate audience rather than a broad and broadly interested one.