Old Media is choking on New Media

I’ve been following politics pretty closely the past few months, and I’ve come to some conclusions about the media: there is not enough information on the Internet, blogs are too filtered, and instant communication hurts the distribution of information. This may surprise a few people.

My parents, knowing I’ve been something of a political junkie, frequently ask whether the lack of a connected television is difficult for me. What do I do during election night if I don’t have pundits in a box shouting at me? Of course, most of my information is coming from the Internet. Watching the pundit is a lot like reading a political website—except that you can’t skim the television. You can’t skip block quotes you’ve read elsewhere. You can’t cross-check anything that looks suspicious. If you want a specific bit of information, like what precincts in which county have reported, the Internet is a great place to look for it.

Unfortunately, the political reporters know this as well. While waiting for a campaign event, they are likely to be checking Blackberries to see the latest buzz on the gaffe of the day. The old media reporters are getting their cue from new media writers on what is worth pursuing. New media, in return, is getting most of its information from old media. Information (by necessity) removed from its context in one story gets further removed from context in another story. After reading political blogs, reporters ask candidates what is important to the arm-chair politicos rather than what seems relevant to the country or what nobody has asked before. Then, since communication is functionally instant, the loop repeats itself. Worse, since it’s easy to spend a large amount of time scanning many websites for little new information, there is not a lot of time left for actual reporting.

I like to imagine it wasn’t always like this. I like to imagine old newspapermen in their newspaperman hats would spend their downtime looking for a story by talking to people rather than browsing the Internet and trying to get in on a story that’s already been told. The Internet has great amounts of information—most of it repeated and respun multiple times. But it has nothing compared to the actual world. Rather than staring fixedly at a Blackberry, my mytho-newspapermen might have interacted with other people waiting for the same event and tried to get a sense of what they cared about and what was important to their community. If they wanted to see what other reporters were working on, they would have to wait for the next morning’s paper. They would be more influenced by their own judgment and hard work than the collective noise of their particular corner of the Internet.

In all probability, this rugged and uninfluenced reporter is a fiction. Worse, I probably got the image from a movie—so it’s not even my own fiction. And, in truth, the Internet is a great communications tool. But with all the glitz and appeal of new technology and new modes of transferring information, we can easily forget that good communication requires craft rather than volume or repetition. Good investigation requires time and subjectivity, both of which the Internet can steal.

I think this is part of the major harm of the Internet. It’s not web-addiction or cyber-bullying or MySpace stalkers or any of the other old, sensationalized problems-that-hurt-your-children translated into a new age. Rather, the harm is the difficulty we have sorting out what is productive and what is distraction. Whether it is a ball and a stick or a mouse and a keyboard, we’ve always had ways to waste our time. The Internet blurs the line between productive work and outright procrastination. This problem is solvable. Hopefully, in the next few years, we will sort out when it is time to disconnect from the web and experience the wide world.