Common Knowledge

Communal news in a fragmented world

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered…. There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge.                                                                               — Don DeLillo, White Noise


In the summer of 1945, the newspaper deliverymen of New York City went on strike. For seventeen days, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers found themselves deprived of their daily news fix.

When interviewed during those days about the role of newspapers in their lives, and the challenges of being without them, by the behavioral scientist Bernard Berelson, the New Yorkers initially responded with the traditional abstractions about the general value of news: the importance of keeping abreast of national and international affairs, the role of that knowledge in democracy, etc. When pressed, though, their story often changed: what people really missed, Berelson discovered, was not specific news itself so much as the idea and the act of news—the daily ritual of reading the paper, the interaction it facilitated with others, the simple “serenity,” in Theodore Glasser’s term, of facing the day feeling informed. Readers, Berelson concluded, shared a “ritualistic and near-compulsive” connection to their daily newspapers. The void left in their absence wasn’t merely journalistic; it was also social. And personal. And, in some ways, spiritual.

Berelson’s analysis documented what we denizens of the burgeoning ecosystem often shorthanded as “the new media landscape” understand instinctively: that news is much more than information. That it is more, even, than a cultural commodity. Berelson highlighted news’s status as a source both of intimacy and anxiety: news is not only a reflection of the world we live in. It is also a reflection of ourselves.

Which means that “the news” is notoriously difficult to define—and, so, to understand. The broad descriptions that feed our general comprehension of the news range, indeed, from the whimsical (“if a man bites a dog, it’s news”), to the practical (news happens “when the life of anyone…departs from ordinary paths, or when events worth telling about occur”), to the even more practical (news is “anything that interests a large part of the community and has never been brought to its attention before”), to the political (“what somebody somewhere wants to suppress”), to the polemical (“a reflection of the passions of the day”), to the poetical (“to see life steady and see it whole”), to the downright paradoxical (a “blend of chance and intention, normality and catastrophe, instrument and accident, expectation and surprise, narrative and interjection”). Et cetera.

Definitions vary in large part because the functions of news themselves vary: even before the term “aggregation” made its way into the journalistic vernacular, news was an amalgamated enterprise, with political pieces and gossip and pragmatic, ‘news you can use’ updates often sharing space in news reports. Outlets like the old New York Herald, the paper’s founder and publisher James Gordon Bennett noted, provided news for “the merchant and man of learning, as well as the mechanic and man of labor.” Even the Acta Diurna—the daily newsletters Caesar distributed to keep Roman citizens apprised of government decisions—featured, along with their public affairs-related updates, reports about crime, sports, and sensational happenings.

The democratization of information, it turns out, is in some ways at odds with democracy itself.

Now, though, in these heady days of barrier-toppling, we’re seeing a movement way from the alloyed assumptions of the past—and toward the narrower interests of the niche: partisan political platforms, narrow-topic outlets, hyperlocal and microlocal sites, RSS and Twitter feeds, mine magazine, etc. Newspapers, general-interest magazines, and broadcasters, on the other hand, are generally shrinking, splitting, or refashioning themselves as specialty outlets. When, that is, they’re not dying out altogether. There is a sense of wandering now. Even the national news outlets, those erstwhile bastions of informational communality, are narrowing their purview according to topic area and/or political slant: Newsweek’s new aim at an elite audience, for example, or, on television, Fox News’s and MSNBC’s increasing embrace of partisan postures.

To an extent, that’s a good thing: the flip side of ‘jack of all trades,’ after all, is ‘master of none.’ Aren’t consumers better served by many outlets that are specialized than by a few outlets that are generalized? And national news, even in its halcyon days—one thinks of Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America”—was never a paragon of cultural comprehensiveness. Master narratives, the closest we’ve ever gotten to macro-communal news, have been, as well, products of oligarchic exclusivity.

The matter isn’t so much the then-versus-now as it is the then-to-now: the dynamic trajectory of news’s broad movement from amalgamation to atomization. The net effect of that shift—which is also, of course, the ‘Net effect—is that consumers are increasingly presented with, and made to choose among, an expanding variety of ever-narrowing news sources. Which means in turn that, with greater ease than ever, we can limit our informational intake to facts that mirror and in many ways foster our own realities, without the necessity of externality—which is to say, without the inconvenience of being challenged in our beliefs.

It’s a common concern—the Daily Me, and all that—but commonality and validity have never been mutually exclusive. Technology, in Max Frisch’s phrase, is “the knack of so arranging the world so that we don’t have to experience it”—and as the world of news consumption increasingly defines itself according to cliques rather than commons, cognition itself becomes ever more customizable. Increasingly, we are able to choose not just which opinions to embrace, but also something more foundational: which facts to know in the first place. Increasingly, we are consumers of Montessori news.

That trend may be individually empowering, but it is limiting in the broader sense. Citizenship spins upon the axis of common information; its responsibilities require, at their base, the sense of security that comes from knowing that what I know is fundamentally similar to what you know. Serenity. An infrastructure of information consumption that fosters homophily—that allows us to cocoon ourselves in our own worldviews—undermines our ability to relate to each other, discursively, as citizens of a diverse nation. It fosters distance and dissonance. And it promotes a troubling paradox: the democratization of information, it turns out, is in some ways at odds with democracy itself.

News’s narrowing trajectories, indeed, suggest the Catch-22 of a media landscape that, in its expansion, enables its denizens to drift, gradually, apart. Where is the middle ground between monopoly and chaos? How do we balance the individually empowering elements of the niche—and the passion and participation they encourage—with news that is empowering in a wider sense of civic life? How do we reconcile the intimacy of news consumption with Berelson’s insight that news is, at is core, a solidarity good? How do we structure a system of news that acts, in varying ways, as democracy’s common denominator?

This is an attempt to answer those questions.

Ecology and Entropy

The Web, it turns out, is aptly named: it extends itself in the manner of technological gossamer, encompassing—and illuminating, and subtly transforming—all other media. The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. The structure of news is shifting, its bonds loosening, its elements slouching towards entropy.

That singular trajectory is caused, actually, by two distinct phenomena: on the one hand, proliferation; on the other, fragmentation. Not only has the Web engendered an explosion of niche news outlets (proliferation); it has also encouraged existing outlets to narrow their scope (fragmentation). With the collapse of the financial models that, in the past, incentivized aggregation—the wider the appeal, the broader the audience, and thus the higher the profits—comes not only a mass compression of the corps of professionals practicing journalism, but also the erosion of journalism’s amalgamated impulse. And, to an extent, fair enough: given news’s economic state, the most sensible business model for most outlets right now—which is to say, the best way for most outlets to survive right now—is to serve a narrow and passionate audience rather than a broad and broadly interested one.

Elements of that trend are, from the consumer perspective, certainly to the good (à la carte menus, when it comes to consumption, often being preferable to prix fixe affairs). “Unbundled” news has its role—and its utility. But the informational grazing such news requires is also impractical. Cognition, after all, depends upon a core pattern—the underlying logic—in the external information being perceived. “To be appreciated by an audience, art must be intelligible to the audience,” the Stanford psychoacoustics professor J.R. Pierce observes. Otherwise, “no matter how great the variety may be, the audience will have an impression of monotony, of sameness. We can be surprised repeatedly only by contrast with that which is familiar, not by chaos.” Music, notes the sociologist Orrin Klapp, “develops by variation upon a theme; there cannot be significant variation without a theme.”

And yet, increasingly, theme is missing, broadly, from our news. As Farhad Manjoo writes in his recent book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, “In some ways, we are returning to the freewheeling days before radio and television launched the very idea of mass media—the era of partisan newspapers and pamphleteers. But our niches, now, are more niche than ever before. We are entering what you might call the trillion-channel universe.” As a result, news consumption itself has taken on a quality of itinerancy: audiences, per Pew’s most recent State of the News Media report, now “hunt and gather what they want when they want it, use search to comb among destinations and share what they find through a growing network of social media.” And consumption itself has thus taken on an increasingly self-definitional property: to read The New York Times, or to watch Fox News—or MSNBC—or the NewsHour—or to curate a personalized RSS feed, is, of course, to make not merely a commercial decision. It is also to make a declaration about who you are and how you see the world.

To an extent, that’s nothing new. In New York City in the 1950s, George W.S. Trow points out in My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998, there were ‘Times readers,’ and ‘Herald Tribune readers,’ and the like—and those designations functioned, just as they do today, as a kind of shorthand of one’s cultural identity. The Herald Tribune of the ’50s, Trow writes, was “professionally reluctant to give you sensational information of any kind, lest it damage your soul.” The Trow family was, the author notes, “in our souls a Herald Tribune family.”

But, then, in Trow’s description, the socially self-categorizing aspects of news were a function of informational slant rather than information itself. The Herald Tribune may have “reported the news a little in the spirit of one who’d seen you at St. James Church on Sunday, someone who was professionally suspicious of Mammon”; still, though, in general, it reported the same basic information as the Times and other papers did. Trow, in describing the diversity of New York’s mid-century news environment, could still talk about “the news”—confident, as he did so, that the term spoke for itself. “The news” needed no qualifier.

Not so today. What’s different now, of course, from the ecology of the ’50s—or the ’60s, or the ’70s, or the ’80s, or the ’90s—is the sheer size of the media ecosystem, and the sheer number of species populating it. The more news outlets there are, in turn, the more choice each outlet has about which information to dig up and to share—and the less reason it has to relate its diggings and sharings to a broader cultural framework. To a theme.

How, after all, in a world teeming with competing versions of reality, are we supposed to know what to believe? In all the white noise, how do we ensure that we’re filtering what we need to hear?

In that disruptive sense alone, the Web—the protean force of the digital age, the platform that has introduced the tumult and turbulence of media proliferation—has been revolutionary. There has always been more information in the world than there have been news outlets to convey it; but the explosion of outlets, in particular, means that no longer is slant the key self-definitional distinction in news: “I read Daily Kos, so I get my news from a liberal perspective.” Now, the key distinction is about fact: “I read Daily Kos, so I get news that is liberal.” Kos provides its community, often, with completely different information than, say, the National Review Online, or Drudge, or The Washington Post, provide their communities. “The news” itself, as a unitary entity, is no longer something we can take for granted. On the contrary: it is increasingly incoherent—“a mass of niches,” Jeff Jarvis has it. Indeed, the notion of a master narrative itself—the communal melody that, even in its exclusivity, also binds us together in its tunes and tones—is slowly dissolving into white noise.

Again, this isn’t all bad: the benefits of diversity and democratization are clear, and nearly countless. Nor is it all new: the anxieties of the echo chamber are older than the Web itself. But they’re also simplistic. Echo chambers and their ilk, after all—for all their informational exclusivity—also foster, in their very narrowness, passionate beliefs among those who participate in them. And passionate beliefs are good—and necessary—for, among other things, democracy. Beliefs, David Weinberger notes, “aren’t simply propositions to which we assent. They are also the foundation for action and for political solidarity.” And partisan journalism in general, the media scholar Michael Schudson points out, “enlists the heart as well as the mind of the audience. It gives readers and viewers not only information but a cause.”

At the same time, though, echo chambers—even those that many might think of as ‘the good ones’—have an insularity that impedes broader political and cultural discourse. They distort reality through their very presumption of multiple realities. They assume—and, then, foster—a disconnect between sub-truths and, simply, truth. Andrew Leonard put it well when analyzing his shock that the 2004 presidential election—despite the Kerry Confidence of the left-wing blogosphere—ultimately awarded another term to George Bush: “Perhaps if I’d spent less time at Daily Kos and more time talking to people who live in Alabama I’d have been less surprised by the election results,” Leonard writes. “And perhaps I’d be better prepared to deal with them.”

The problem with echo chambers, in other words, isn’t implicit; it’s contextual. Their value depends, as the value of most things depends, on the environment in which they operate: the overall structure of news. And on their ability, in political terms, to balance the will of the minority with the rule of the majority. “I really think I need to get out more, now,” Leonard had it. And: indeed. Niche news is problematic only when the niches are so niche—and so systematized—that diversity itself devolves into cognitive chaos. “Entropy, as loss of meaning,” Orrin Klapp notes, “always lurks at both ends of the continuum from banality to noise.”

The problem occurs, then, when we consumers burrow down into our self-selected spaces within that continuum, drowning out the noise we don’t like in favor of the noise we do. And it occurs even more acutely when we systematize such selective narrowness, writing it into the very DNA of digital journalism. In And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, Bill Wasik describes the “feedback loop among bloggers and readers,” citing a study finding that 85 percent of blog links led consumers to blogs of the same political bent—“with almost no blog showing any particular respect for any blog on the other side.” In this way, selective exposure becomes a communal activity.

And so, ironically, does cognitive isolation. “If extremism is generated after encountering competing arguments, by all means,” notes the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who has made extensive studies of crowd dynamics. “The problem is when extremism emerges from the logic of social interactions”—from, in other words, a system of discourse that allows for self-segregation. And that’s the problem we’re seeing, increasingly, in our journalistic infrastructure. On the one hand, people have access to more dissenting views than ever before; on the other, paradoxically, they are more able to ignore those views than ever before. My reality here. Your reality there.

But: what about our reality?

The result, for news consumers, is an increasing permissiveness when it comes to fact itself. Outlets offering different, and often competing, versions of truth—when those outlets have roughly the same scope and sway—suggest, implicitly, an equivalence between those truths. “Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization,” notes Farhad Manjoo; now, however, “the creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t…. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.”

Proliferation and fragmentation, for all their obvious benefits, also suggest a course toward broad cognitive confusion. How, after all, in a world teeming with multiple versions of reality, are we supposed to know what to believe? In all the white noise, how do we ensure that we’re filtering what we need to hear—as actors, as consumers, as citizens? How do we determine which information will keep us broadly synchronized with the rest of the world? “A man with a watch knows what time it is,” the saying goes. “A man with two watches is never sure.”

Diversity and Democracy

Our political system demands not only that citizens receive a steady flow of information that will, in turn, allow them to be democratic decision-makers—but also that the information in question be, in a profound sense, shared. “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,” James Madison wrote, “is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.” It’s telling, here, that popular information, shared information—rather than simply information itself—was the founder’s concern. Without “popular information,” we lose not only our baseline of knowledge about the political world, but also our bearings within it. We risk becoming subject, as it were, to subjectivity itself—and ending up with a society, as William James had it, in which “people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Of what value is discourse, after all, when we’re unable able to talk about, and act upon, the same things? Imagine a book club in which everyone shows up having read different books—one person having read The Brothers Karamozov, another Pride and Prejudice, another Twilight. Or a town hall meeting in which one citizen comes prepared to talk about teacher tenure in the local schools, another to talk about improving a neighborhood park, another to talk about rewriting local zoning laws. There may be some discussion, sure—but that discussion will be crippled to the point of absurdity. Democratic discourse requires the core commonality of shared information; otherwise, what’s the point?

“The idea,” Cass Sunstein puts it, “is that our system at its best is a deliberative democracy. And a deliberative democracy has preconditions. If we celebrate the capacity to self-sort, we’ll lose sight of the value of deliberation.”

This isn’t to romanticize that deliberation. Nor is it to suggest that the rigor of republicanism is wholly reliant on journalism. Representative democracy thrived in the United States long before the advent of a coherent system of news. “Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections,” Jack Shafer points out. Michael Schudson sums it up perfectly: “That journalism is crucial to modern democracy seems clear; that it is not by any means sufficient to democracy seems equally clear; that journalism does not by itself produce or provide democracy seems likewise apparent.”

Knowledge united the country—not by whitewashing differences, but rather by giving the fledgling nation a baseline of shared information and discourse.

The crucial concern isn’t so much news-and-democracy; rather, it’s a matter of news and the more foundational element of both America’s journalism and its political system: the public. “The press justifies itself in the name of the public,” the press scholar James Carey wrote. “It exists—or so it is regularly said—to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public, to protect the public’s right to know, to serve the public interest.”

In this way the public, in Carey’s enduring phrase, is “the god term of journalism.” (Count, for example, the number of times it is used in the opening lines of “The Journalist’s Creed,” which doubles as a de facto code of ethics for the National Press Club: “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust.”) News serves the public not only by feeding it information; it also fosters, in the phrase of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the “sociological imagination”—the habit of mind required to connect one’s private concerns to the “public issues” that give rise to them. News itself is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy. In learning about our fellow citizens, we come to see their lives as they are: inextricably linked to ours. News begets empathy—and, in that, social capital. Connection is key: as Robert Putnam notes, “a society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.”

And yet, crucially, the press exists not merely to serve the public. It exists, also, to cultivate a public in the first place: to take the logic of the First Amendment—which, in mingling the freedom to gather in public spaces with the freedom of the press, suggests a core similarity between the two—and translate it to the particular and evolving needs of a far-flung citizenry. As the sociologist and journalism scholar Todd Gitlin observes, mapping Habermas’s notion of the “public sphere” to the concerns of contemporary journalism,

Perhaps the great genius of the newspaper was not simply in the invention of reporting but in the paper’s ability to serve as the great aggregator, so that something of a public sliver or even a polygon if not a sphere was created by the sum of all papers, as incidental readers accumulated into functional publics.

The founders themselves envisioned a nation comprised precisely of such functional publics—fostered by shared public spaces that, in turn, fostered discourse. These included not merely town squares and meeting halls and “publick houses,” but also the psychic space represented by the news media of the time: pamphlets and papers. (Indeed, the U.S. Post Office, created in 1775 and codified as a cabinet department in 1792, was founded not merely to enable interpersonal communications throughout the colonies and then the states, but also to circulate media products. Paul Starr sums up its efficacy in The Creation of the Media: “Postal networks supported the creation of news networks.”)

The “news” in question was heavily partisan, to be sure, and often colored by the rhetorical vitriol that was just as present during the Enlightenment as it has been at every other stage of human communication—but still it was, in the broadest sense, public. Even “the backwoodsman,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “talks the language of a town; he is aware of the past, curious about the future, and ready to argue about the present.” He is “a very civilized man prepared for a time to face life in the forest, plunging into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, ax, and newspapers.”

That spirit of discursive inclusivity—if you can read, you can participate—was a key contributor, most scholars agree, to the political and economic success of the fledgling democracy. “Whatever else may be said of those immigrants who came to settle in New England,” Neil Postman writes, “it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas, and social life were embedded in the medium of typography.” Mediated knowledge, in other words, united the country. Not by whitewashing differences among its consumers, but rather by giving those consumers a baseline of shared information and discourse that, eventually, transformed an awkward amalgam of loosely connected states—the experiment—into the United States. The nation.


The conundrum we face now is in many ways a contemporary corollary to the challenges faced by the founders: to determine a system—of news, rather than government—that will balance majority and minority, ensuring that the diversity of our informational outlets complements, rather than counters, the broader diversity of our national discourse. A system that will unite micro-communities and macro- into a coherent public. “The unruliness of a decentralized and multi-voiced informational system may be among democracy’s greatest assets,” Michael Schudson notes. But so is a system that is, in the broadest sense, unitary. The challenge, as we navigate the chasm between old ways and new, is to find a way to mingle the productive properties of commotion with the enduring value of community.

“The prime condition of a democratically organized public is a kind of knowledge and insight which does not yet exist,” the philosopher John Dewey, patron saint of participatory democracy, wrote in The Public and Its Problems.

The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breath life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery, it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.

This, then, is the goal: a system of news that realizes Dewey’s prescient notion—a framework that combines the participatory value of passionate belief with the participatory value of democratic discourse. The Web, after all, has the power to unite people in groups both minute and immense; at its best, it does both.

Cass Sunstein prescribes, as one mechanism of moving forward, an “architecture of serendipity”—an informational infrastructure that facilitates chance encounters with a wide array of knowledge, ensuring that we don’t lose ourselves in the maze of our own idiosyncrasies. Whether that architecture builds itself up from the civic spaces of sites like Wikipedia, or from national news aggregators, or from collaborative networks of outlets, or from the mini-meritocracies of social media, or from a logic of news consumption that plays out, Pareto-like, in the concentration of the long tail…remains to be seen. The point, for now, is that our democracy requires its construction. “It is hardly possible,” Mill had it, “to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing people in contact with others dissimilar to themselves, and in contact too with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”

Yes, it’s easy to romanticize the notion of deliberative democracy. But, then, perhaps now is a time when we need to romanticize it. “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve,” the Bernard Shaw line goes. The same may be said of the news.

For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Justin Peters’s companion piece on the uses and purposes of the Internet, click here. To read a conversation between Garber and Peters on the topics covered in their essays, click here.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.