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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Summer Reading 2013: “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril” by Len Downie and Bob Kaiser (2002)

“Improving technology has already made more and more information available to each of us, and will continue to do so. But more is not necessarily better.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser

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In The News About the News, Washington Post veterans Len Downie and Robert Kaiser focused on how to maintain professional journalistic standards in a media environment that is faster, cheaper, and more crowded than ever before. “Too much of what has been offered as news in recent years has been untrustworthy, irresponsible, misleading or incomplete,” they write in the introductory chapter, “News Matters.”

The history of new media is instructive: radio did not eliminate newspapers; talking movies did not destroy radio or newspapers; television did not obliterate radio, newspapers or movies. For nearly a century, Americans have made room for and taken advantage of new technologies without turning away from old ones that are still useful or fun.

And new technologies are just delivery devices. What might actually appear on those whiz-bang new reading devices of the future? And who will provide that content?

News does not grow on trees, and raw data is not the same as journalism. Some bits of data — ball scores, stock prices, weather conditions — are interesting in their own right, but most data and facts become useful to people only when they are organized, put into context, evaluated and digested. And of course much important information is not readily available but must be dug up by resourceful investigators called reporters.

Improving technology has already made more and more information available to each of us, and will continue to do so. But more is not necessarily better. We think that the more raw information available to each of us, the more consumers will need professional journalists to sort through it for them, find the wheat and reject the chaff, organize the important information in an easily digestible form, check to be sure it’s accurate and display it in a way that reflects its importance. Journalists make sense of things — that is their function. A data-rich world, all interconnected by the Internet, will generate a great deal of confusing information that won’t be useful until someone makes sense of it.

                                   
What to read next
half-life
Craig Silverman    April 22, 2014
When you commit to explaining the important issues in the news, you commit to a life of updating. What’s the best way to manage a corpus of news knowledge with an uncertain half-life?