The News is not a competition

A while back, I came across the following from Dave Winer, and I couldn’t resist commenting:

I keep saying the same thing over and over, the Google Reader approach is wrong, it isn’t giving you what’s new — and that’s all that matters in newsSuccinctly put — news is about what’s new — and that’s it.

Why does Twitter work better for news than Google Reader? Simple, Twitter gives you what’s new now. You don’t have to hunt around to find the newest stuff.

The thing that annoyed me about this is the assumption that reading the news is some kind of competition, where if you’re reading stuff more than a few hours old you’re some kind of poor relation to those who are really up to date. It’s bad enough that anyone believes this obviously ludicrous idea, but what really got up my nose is the way Winer seems to believe this view of the news is not just his personal preference, but an unarguable part of what news is.

Certainly, there’s a benefit to having news sources that take account of the latest information that is germane to the subject under discussion, and that means that all news has a shelf life. If you’re a journalist who relies on making scoops to get readers then of course newness matters, but this isn’t even the case for all journalists, let alone the vast majority of people.

This idea about news is a new conception, and a technology-driven one. Back when people had to wait for the evening paper to find out what was going on in the world, society still functioned perfectly well. I dare say people were actually better informed than someone who spends hours a day on their twitter stream. Like all cases where technology allows us to do something new, we must ask ourselves whether we must, just because we can.

The reason that Winer’s conception of news is for most people not just inappropriate but actively harmful is that most information, most of the time, for most people, is not actionable. I don’t need to know about a buyout rumour or a shock opinion poll or a company’s financial statement the minute it happens because I’m not going to do immediately do anything with that information. There’s a downside to information too, in that the importance of news isn’t necessarily apparent until some time after the event, so trying to follow news as it happens inevitably weighs you down with lots of stuff that eventually turns out to be irrelevant.

Up to the second news updates? No thanks. Get back to me when you have a well-structured analysis telling me exactly what matters and how it will affect people like me. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

One thought on “The News is not a competition

  1. Buster

    It’s sad the obsessed way our “informed” society focuses on the recency aspect of news. To be informed means to know what’s important, not what’s as new as ever possible. Was it Neil Postman in Technopoly who irked us to ask “what’s good” instead of “what’s new”?

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