I am not interested in changing the world. I’d rather change the way we talk about it. No, this is not a manifesto for underachievers: To change the world, we need to change the way we think, talk, and write about the institutions, values, and people that give shape to this world.
In so doing, we must radically re-examine what is news. This is not necessarily a new question, nor one that has not been answered before. It’s one of those questions that are not just worth answering, but also worth asking, time and time again, as the world evolves along with the storytelling structures that sustain it.
These soft, storytelling structures set the form and the shape of news. They suggest which stories are emphasized, and how.
What is news?
What counts as news?
What is covered as new?
What is considered new and what is labeled old?
What do we lose sight of, when we focus just on what is new?
What do algorithms register as new?
Old is not the opposite of new, and history is not the opposite of journalism. The new is the opportunity embedded within that which is considered old. And old is the context that sets the form the new takes on.
Most media conglomerates obsess with covering the latest news. The new-est. This has gradually become an exercise in futility, because emerging technologies of news storytelling change the meaning of journalism. Journalists are no longer the first ones, or the only ones telling the story. Trying to desperately continue to do so leads to an obsession with instantaneity in news reporting that robs stories of their substance, and journalism of its potential.
And yet media conglomerates continue to participate in the race for instantaneity, a race they are doomed to finish second, if not last. News becomes a colorless background, wallpaper to our everyday experience, rather than a dynamic, substantial map of the world we live in.
Big media won’t turn away from this trend. But smaller media have, and in so doing, they have captured the interests of a public cynical towards formulaic media coverage. And thus they have begun to change the news ecosystem, one story at a time. In the past few years, we have seen the rise of smaller, more flexible, independent news storytelling organizations populate the news ecosystem. I am hoping these will restore the plurality we lost. The internet and its surrounding platforms have supported these newer storytelling mechanisms. Technology is not here to destroy journalism, as many fear, but to help us reimagine what is news, and how stories are told.
So my prediction for 2016? Here’s to people who change how we think about the news. Here’s to people who change how we tell stories. Here’s to the return of the independents!
Zizi Papacharissi is professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.