The Demise of an Informed Citizenry

Last week’s decision by publisher Tina Brown to cease the print publication of Newsweek took very few industry observers by surprise. After all, the venerable news magazine had lost approximately half of its readership during the past five years, and had been struggling to regain the public’s attention through a variety of controversial tactics, such as oddly sensational cover photography.

So will the closure of the news service lead to a shortage of news providers? According to some industry experts, the answer is “no.” After all, there are still television and radio newscasts, specialty news publications, daily newspapers, and the far more venerable Time magazine. Furthermore, as the conventional wisdom stipulates, many people are now obtaining their news through Twitter and other online sources.

The audience levels of most traditional general news resources, though, are (like Newsweek’s subscriber base) rapidly yielding market share to online competitors. And though services like Twitter are becoming more prevalent, it is reasonable to ask whether services that compress reports into 140 character postings can ever take the place of magazines that publish detailed investigative news stories.

If the answer is “no,” then it may be appropriate to wonder whether the demise of Newsweek and other traditional news outlets is heralding the end of an era of an informed citizenry in the United States.

The Golden Age?

It is always tempting to glance back, wistfully, at a previous period of time and declare it to be a “golden era.” That’s because our memories have a way of accentuating the positive aspects of our past, but obscuring the troubling characteristics of prior times.

Wikipedia, for instance, defines the “golden age” of baseball as the decades of the 1920s through the 1950s. And the designation is understandable; after all, legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays all played during this period.

Nevertheless, this so-called “golden age” also encompassed the Great Depression, an era when financially strapped teams forced players to serve as their own managers and coaches because the clubs couldn’t afford to hire supervisory staff. And throughout this period of time, African American ballplayers were either banned from the sport entirely, or were savagely abused because of their ethnicity.

A golden age that, in reality, wasn’t very golden … is that how we should perceive the twentieth century of news and information as well? Or does the demise of a print publication like Newsweek truly spell the end of a more favorable time?

News, Then and Now

Although advocates of the internet claim that the medium has made information ubiquitous, news of the world was easily obtained half a century ago as well. Most major American cities were served by multiple newspaper publications that issued “update” editions two or more times each day. And all of the major television networks broadcast full documentaries during the “prime time” evening periods.

Time began printing its weekly news magazine in 1923, and Newsweek was launched precisely one decade later. These publications, as well as smaller competitors like the U.S. News and World Report, were sold through 24 hour news stands, direct mail subscriptions, and a multitude of supplemental distribution methods.

Today, of course, print newspapers are fading from the scene. Television documentary series, such as CBS’s groundbreaking See It Now with Edward R Murrow, have been replaced by reality entertainment shows. And more than half of the audience for the national evening newscasts by CBS, NBC, and ABC have been lost during the past thirty years.

The plight of these traditional news outlets would not worry public advocates if citizens are simply gravitating to alternative sources of news. But are they indeed doing so? Or, alternatively, are they actually becoming less informed over time?

The BBC vs. Twitter

Interestingly, earlier this year, the British broadcasting giant BBC acknowledged Twitter’s presence as a rival “breaking new” organization by forbidding its reporters from posting information on the web-based service before filing their reports in BBC news rooms.

Apparently, their reporters had been “tweeting” brief notifications about breaking stories before sending the same information to their own editors! Such practices do lend credence to the presumption that Twitter has emerged as a replacement news service that is filling the void left by traditional news outlets.

Far fewer citizens, though, are following CBS News on Twitter than were watching the television newscasts thirty years ago. CBS’s current television audience usually approximates six million viewers, an amount that has fallen by more than six million during the past thirty years.

Today, there are slightly more than two million individuals who are following CBS News on Twitter. So what happened to the other four million individuals who once watched Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather every night?

It is, perhaps, possible that they have chosen to follow a different news service on Twitter. A more worrisome possibility, though, is that they are no longer bothering to remain informed about current events at all.