Consider for a minute the “news” on Yahoo.com last Friday morning:
A man is building a “full-scale” Noah’s ark.
Los Angeles basketball star Ron Artest has changed his name to “Metta World Peace.”
Football player Reggie Bush is now dating a woman who is famous in part for looking like Bush’s ex-girlfriend, the reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
There is a report of David Letterman’s treatment of Justin Bieber and of a major gaffe on some food show. A missing photo of Farrah Fawcett was found.
Oh yes, and there is an article or two on Osama bin Laden’s relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence services, a story with some importance to international relations.
It’s an irony of modern news. Even as news seems to be everywhere and in more places than ever before, what passes as news today is often cheap and tawdry, doing little to add to the insight into governance so necessary to democracy. It is not a journalism that performs the functions we wish it to.
I should say that I am with the commentators who decry the cheapening of culture that comes with this sort of “news," and I worry about the lack of useful information that flows from such coverage in a democracy that assumes citizens need to be informed. I also acknowledge that news has always had some of this stuff. But my points lie elsewhere.
What I would say starts with an observation: It costs less money to write about scheduled court trials and celebrity gossip than it does to write about international relations. It costs more to analyze policy in informative ways than it does to go to a fashion show featuring the Kardashians.
Simply put, the cheap, simple and tawdry so prevalent in news today seems, in part, a sign of the economic times.
A new study from the Federal Communications Commission underscores these changing dynamics of the news business. It makes two points that build on these facts.
First, in this world of more news all the time, one of the exciting trends has been that bloggers and other new voices provide new, powerful insight into issues. Such insight provides a more robust, democratic debate.
But here’s the rub the FCC points out. As other researchers have shown, many, if not most, bloggers don’t provide original research or original “news.” Instead, they comment on and link to existing news content — produced by a legacy media that has fewer resources.
If you listen to Sean Hannity, for example, sometimes it seems he takes much of his show prep by reading the online Drudge Report and providing his insight on it. (Drudge, in turn, links to other people’s stories, while not doing much of his own research. That’s not saying that either Hannity or Drudge fail to provide a valuable public service to their listeners.)
At its worst, this insight means that more and more people are commenting on fewer and fewer things — stories produced by a news media that sees no profit — or little — when yahoo!, Hannity or others comment on their stories. Eventually, a vicious cycle takes over, cutting the number of original reporters.
This trend can be a problem for the explanation of national affairs in Washington, D.C., as reporters neglect the depth of stories in public policy for the ease of covering the latest relational trauma of Kim or Khloe or for the convenience of the latest press release dropped in the baskets of the White House press office.
Washington has so much money and so many interest groups that many nonprofit and for-profit organizations provide incredible, useful information online in a form that seems like journalism in all but name. So, voters can stay informed on Washington affairs if they wish to do so, even bypassing much of the legacy media.
However, the second and most prominent point of the FCC study is that the dilemma of declining news budgets and its effect on public discourse is most acute in the less-than-glamorous coverage of city and state government.
The numbers of statehouse reporters have been declining across the nation, and coverage of city government seems to be declining as well. It is an open question whether blogging can or will replace it going forward.
The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its coverage of Bell, Calif., where city officials voted themselves obscene salaries.
It was the news that brought national scorn and eventual sanction against these officials.
Imagine if the coverage of city and state government continues to fade. It is altogether too likely that corruption might take root in places it otherwise wouldn’t. It is possible that incompetence would be less likely to ever come to light. Trust in government might sink even further than it already has.
In the end, we get the journalism we want. If we want a journalism that enlightens and teaches about the problems in our hometowns, we can’t forget that such deserves our support.
If we want the free “news” that comes over new aggregations, we will get the news we want, and, unfortunately, the news we deserve, and we will learn a lot about "Metta World Peace."
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
As the Mormon Media Observer, Lane is interested in hearing your ideas for stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.