In March 2008, a young(er!) Brian Stelter wrote a piece for The New York Times about how young people get their news online.
Nearly six years later, like nearly all old news stories, it’s been mostly forgotten. But in the seventh paragraph of Stelter’s piece, there’s a line that has since achieved a life of its own. It’s a quote passed along by Jane Buckingham, founder of the market research company Intelligence Group:
Ms. Buckingham recalled conducting a focus group where one of her subjects, a college student, said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.”
If the news is that important, it will find me. I can’t tell you how many conferences, how many symposia, how many gatherings of worthies I’ve been at where some version of that line has been tossed around.
In some ways, it’s a beacon of hope: Sure, young people aren’t reading a newspaper any more. But the really important stuff still finds them, somehow. But in other ways, it’s an admission of defeat: Most news isn’t “that important,” in the sense of being essential to an individual’s day-to-day life. The most significant value of news isn’t in any single piece of information leading to tangible improvements in the news consumer’s life: It’s in the ambient engagement and community awareness that comes from reading a bunch of stuff that isn’t that important — at least not in any immediate personal-consequence sense.
That’s a long prologue for this episode of TLDR, the podcast side project of WNYC’s On the Media. (It’s already two weeks old, but it only came up in my podcast app today, walking through the New England slush.)
The episode, produced by Lisa Pollak, P.J. Vogt, and Alex Goldman, is called “The Knowledge,” and it’s an accounting of a contest that is sort of the mirror image of that Times quote — an attempt to avoid the news that is trying to find you. In this case, it’s news of who won the Super Bowl. (Spoiler alert: Seattle.)
Every year, a small group of sports fans scattered across the US play a game called “Last Man.” The goal is to be the last man in America to find out who won the Super Bowl. TLDR Sports reporter Lisa Pollak followed the game this year, and found out just how hard information was to avoid in the internet age.
It’s an entertaining 14 minutes, but it’s also a window into some interesting questions for the news: What is it that makes news unavoidable? Could we tweak that unavoidability in ways that would be socially productive? Would it be possible to make civically useful news and information unavoidable?
Or, put another way: If the important news will find me, how can we maximize what counts as important when it comes to this ambient transmission of information?
Listen to this podcast (and the squirming induced by various feats of media avoidance) with those questions in mind.