Although they might differ about exactly when it started, most cultural historians would agree that we’re in the information age. Our access to data of every description is unprecedented and grows by the minute. We’ve come to expect that whatever we want to know should be just a few mouse clicks away.
One casualty of the information age has been the news cycle. Of course, news has always been generated continuously, but whereas its mechanism of delivery formerly meant that we acquired it intermittently, as dictated by the limitations of print publishing or broadcast scheduling, now delivery can be continuous too. You no longer have to wait until tomorrow or tonight to hear what’s happening today.
In this kind of world, is there still a place for newspapers?
A newspaper is in part a distribution system, a way of getting information to people. As such, newspapers have always had to compete with other means of delivery, both print and nonprint. We’ve long been able to get information from books, then magazines and journals, followed by radio and television. More recently, the Internet, e-mail, Twitter and the like have increased the ease and speed of acquiring information.
Newspapers have adapted to these developments by establishing online editions, which have freed them from the limitations of print publication and distribution schedules. In the electronic realm, newspapers take their place among a host of outlets that share a vast audience whose access to their content is limited only by connectivity.
But newspapers are more than a way of distributing information. They also serve as filters, a way to winnow the limitless harvest of words that threatens to overwhelm us. Newspaper editors are gatekeepers. If a paper promises to publish all the news that’s fit to print, as the New York Times has since 1896, it’s implicitly promising to decide what is fit.
There’s a touch of arrogance in that pledge. Any gatekeeper will be challenged. Why did she get in and I didn’t? Newspaper readers will inevitably think the paper gives too much coverage to X and not enough to Y. But readers also realize that they depend on newspapers to help them separate the wheat from the tares. For their part, newspaper editors realize that they should be responsive to their readers’ needs.
Readers can make their needs known through letters to the editor. A paper might also solicit reader input through a survey, as the Bugle will do in May. By these means, a publication and its readers maintain a symbiotic relationship that recognizes their interdependence.
Newspapers not only decide what’s fit to print, they also make it fit. Making things fit means confining news to the space available in a given issue. A newspaper’s size is a function of how much advertising it sells. Because of how it’s printed, the Bugle’s size must be in increments of four pages. A drop in advertising revenue has meant going from mostly 20-page papers to 16-page issues for the past year or so.
In addition to its spatial connotation, making things fit means rendering them fit for consumption. Editors are not only gatekeepers; they’re also fixers. Newspaper readers expect that what they see in the paper is accurate, and they hope it’s also well-said.
Deciding what’s fit to print and then making it fit is a challenge the Bugle has been attempting to fulfill for 35 years. This issue looks back at those earlier years, and there will be more retrospective coverage in coming months. But there will also be “new news” about the people and places and events that are important to Bugle readers.
Living in the information age is exciting but also daunting. Having trusted publications that cover what’s important to you can go a long way toward making this the best time in history to be a reader.