Are we more or less news-literate today than we used to be? We’re told all the time that we don’t have the same grasp of news as people did in some gauzy, undefined “golden era,” and perhaps there’s a real argument to be made. After all, we can all imagine old-timey pictures of people on trains, everyone absorbed in their own paper, smoke from a hundred contemplative pipes rising to the ceiling; or we can see a horde of smartly attired businessmen swarming the “Extra!”-yelling newsie to get the latest update on the war. But us? We’re just staring at our phones, playing some game or other.
It’s pretty easy to see why that’s garbage. Yes, people sometimes play games instead of reading the physical paper, but while we all like to romantically imagine ourselves as a generation of wastrels, the truth is that there is more good reporting and a greater access to and market for global and hyperlocal news than ever before. The internet and mobile tech are actually saving news, even in some of its traditional forms. This was made abundantly clear yesterday when the Bay Area’s Facebook announced Instant Articles, which offers a new way to read old forms.
Mobile Tech and the New News
There’s no question that digital media and mobile technology have changed the way we consume news. Instead of picking up the paper and reading whatever happens to be printed, we rely on Twitter and Facebook to deliver us the news. Indeed, according to Pew Research, 30% of adults get their news from Facebook, with smaller but growing numbers from Twitter and other social media sites.
This might initially seem somewhat discouraging, but it’s actually quite exciting. People now have access to a much wider range of sources and information than ever before. The people on the train reading the paper got the news the publishers decided to print. I bow to few in my love for The New York Times, but I stand with Hitchens in my annoyance at the “complacent and conceited and censorious” motto, “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” Who are they to decide?
And that’s been exactly the problem with the so-called “old media”- the assumed audience, which doesn’t hold anymore. Our attention has gotten more fragmented, which in many ways is a good thing. If there is a story in Pakistan, I can easily read Pakistani journalists and the blog of an aid worker who has been stationed there for years, as well as the Twitter feeds of citizens on the ground. If someone is running for President, I can read the horse race coverage or seek out the local reporter who has been covering them since they were a sleazy county official. We get to decide what to read.
Instant Articles and the Old News
The downside, of course, is that we get to decide what not to read, and that usually comes down to split-second decisions. One thing that does ring true about “old vs new” stereotypes is a lack of patience. We measure our time in seconds, now, and one problem Facebook had with its newsfeed was that links could take up to eight seconds to load. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but count to it out loud. When you’re clicking around the internet, that seems like an eternity. That was a problem for Facebook and its partners. People didn’t want to wait that long for an article to open, even if they would then spend 10 minutes reading it.
That’s where Instant Articles comes in. The new Facebook feature delivers original full-length articles right into your feed, with a special emphasis on mobile readers (after all, Facebook now gets 70% of its revenue from mobile sources). Instant Articles provides pieces that you can read and watch and interact with, with features like tilting your phone to zoom in on pictures, along with interactive maps and audio captions. It’s a fully mobile news experience and it is, as the name suggest, instant. The full article with all its features is right there.
Facebook Starts Hosting Publishers’ “Instant Articles”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Instant Articles is their partners. This is a new and exciting feature, but the first eight news organizations that they’ve partnered with are publishing royalty: The New York Times, National Geographic, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian and the BBC out of England, as well as Germany’s Der Speigel and Der Bild. Buzzfeed is the last partner, but except for that, these are all old and venerated news sources, and for the most part they are uniformly excellent, even with their limitations.
This is great news. I do love the new way we can seek out our sources, but there is something to be said for professional reporters with expansive resources. Those resources have been shrinking and this is a way for them to get back on their feet. Facebook is going to share 70% of the revenue with its partners, which will serve as a vital new stream of cash for a struggling industry. This will allow them to do the kind of real, long-term, in-depth reporting that seemed to have been going extinct in an era of quick hits and zero revenue.
We argued a long, long time ago that smartphones and mobile tech could save the kind of journalism it has been accused of killing. People want news and the market was going to have to rebound around to that. We just had to figure out how to make it marketable, make it deliverable, and make it fast. Our need for information has never ceased. What mobile tech has done, again, is to tear down the old way of doing things, but once the rubble cleared, it found a new and better way to deliver us what we never stopped wanting. That’s always good news.