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Journalism wants to be your friend, not your teacher

“Media is moving back from a 20th-century mass market to a collection of artisans who keep close ties with specific patrons, based on shared social, cultural and normative understandings.”

For many New Yorkers, the 17-day newspaper strike of 1945 was a trying ordeal. For communication researcher Bernard Berelson, it was an opportunity to understand what reading the newspaper meant to people, and what they were missing when denied it.

What he found was that people not only missed the “rational” purpose of news, such as obtaining current information, but also (and more so) the “non-rational” ones, like strengthening social ties, acquiring social prestige and fostering a sense of belonging. In a way, children who could no longer read the comic strips with their parents were at a greater loss than the adults who read the paper to keep track of international and financial news.

News consumption is often conceptualized as a cerebral activity that attests to our ability to be rational, truly modern citizens. But for some years now, in attempt to connect with readers and get them interested (and also get them to pay), news organizations have been increasingly addressing these soft benefits, reinventing themselves not as an authoritative instructor — but as a friend that keeps you up to date.

They do so, among other things, by talking to readers informally online and offline, offering access to clubs and events, repackaging subscription programs as “memberships”, and catering to social identities and shared values across different dimensions of the product — from share-baiting op-eds to the language used in subscription pitches.

This shift is the direct result of some foundational changes in the media industry. Most people have access to many more news sources than they had 20 years ago, so they can select their news on the basis of much more nuanced criteria. News organizations can no longer rely on funding from mass advertising, especially not online, so they are asking individuals to invest in a direct relationship with them.

Trust issues play a growing part in supporting that sensibility, too. People may not trust news organizations as much, but they will trust a friend with whom they have a lot in common.

This is one reason why in 2019, the media will try even harder to become your trusted friend. Journalism now seeks to be embedded in our social life, not only our intellectual activities. Increasingly, it pleads not only to our cerebral side, but also to social affinities and shared values.

For some, these developments are troubling, as they represent a weakening of shared knowledge and identity among national publics. Others point to their potential for engaging and mobilizing news consumers based on greater personal relevance. Either way, the signs are abundant that media is moving back from a 20th-century mass market to a collection of artisans who keep close ties with specific patrons, based on shared social, cultural and normative understandings.

This new landscape comes with a substantial challenge, on which we have to do much better this century than they did in the past. When news becomes your friend and depends on your voluntary contribution, the playing field is no longer level, and some communities and individuals are at much greater risk of falling behind. One of the defining challenges in the coming decades is making sure that professional news doesn’t become a luxury product. News organizations must find a way to borrow the positive qualities of friendship without reproducing its exclusivity.

Efrat Nechushtai is a PhD candidate in communications in the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a research fellow in the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

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