A decade ago, the social theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote a provocative essay titled "The End of History." In it, he argued that market economics and democratic politics were slowly sweeping the world and that their triumph would gradually erase most historic strife. It was a dubious prediction, but the phrase stuck. So let me modify it to suggest a less momentous change: The End of News.
The Internet and the explosion of cable and satellite TV channels are blurring the boundaries between news and information. This does not mean the end of newspapers or TV news programs. It surely means (and already has) that they will lose influence and dispense less "traditional" news.
The dictionary actually denies a distinction between news and information (news is "a report of a recent event . . . information," says Webster's). But in practice, distinctions have existed. In 1969, when I started as a newspaper reporter, news mainly meant "hard news." It focused on crime, politics, government, disasters, scandals and sports. Since then, "soft news" has mushroomed.
First came reporting of broad social, economic and lifestyle trends. If more mothers had jobs, that was news. Next, news and entertainment converged. Celebrities commanded more coverage, and personal interest stories -- evoking sympathy, revulsion or anger -- multiplied. Finally came personal service journalism: how to be healthy, invest wisely and buy smartly.
During this evolution, writing became more relaxed, more personal and occasionally better. An obsession with "facts" gave way to "analysis," opinion and bias. But one constant remained: News consisted mostly of what editors said it was. Now even this defining characteristic is eroding before cable TV and the Internet, as they spew out vast amounts of semi-processed information (headlines, financial data) and unedited factoids and opinions from various "talking heads," "experts" and ordinary folk.
The result is not simply that news isn't what it used to be -- it's now hard to say what it is. People have choices and define it themselves. In a survey last year, the Pew Research Center asked: "There are so many ways to get the news these days that I don't worry when I don't have a chance to read the paper or when I miss my usual news programs." Three-quarters of respondents agreed, 36 percent "completely" and 40 percent "mostly."
Not surprisingly, newspaper readership has slipped as a share of the population. In 1965, 71 percent of adults said they had read a daily paper the previous day; in 1997, only 50 percent had. And recently, non-cable TV news programs have suffered large audience losses. Since 1993, viewers of local TV news programs have dropped from 76 percent to 64 percent of adults, reports Pew.
Perhaps the traditional media can halt these drops. Mark Willes, chairman of the Times Mirror Co., likes to recall that many apparently inevitable prophecies haven't come true. Credit cards and electronic money transfers didn't end the use of cash. By analogy, he argues that newspapers can defy forecasts of decline by better advertising their advantages.
Of course, competition for readers' attention is fierce. The Los Angeles Times, Willes said in a recent speech, faces 26 local papers, 16 broadcast TV stations, 49 cable networks, 73 radio stations, as well as countless magazines and online services and Web sites. But the resulting "information overload" puts "a premium on the editorial function" -- deciding what's important and what's not. People want to be told what's "news."
I hope so. The typical paper today is a superior buy to one 30 years ago. It has more stories on more subjects. It is not a single product but a bundle of products (sections for news, sports, business, lifestyle, health, cooking, science, etc.). The idea is not merely to satisfy readers' various interests. It is to attract readers with different interests.
But the resulting bulk is a disadvantage. Newspapers are costly to produce and transport. They intimidate (who can finish one?). And suppose the habits of the various audiences change. Suppose sports fans don't read the sports page -- but rely on ESPN and online sports services. Or investors defect from business pages to CNBC and online services. Traditional TV faces the same problem. It's as easy to click on Court TV as NBC.
Because this splintering of audiences threatens the advertising and profits of newspapers and broadcasters, it also affects the nature of news. For years, journalists and academics have criticized "greedy media monopolies" for "shortchanging the news" to fatten profits. These attacks were exactly backward. As long as newspapers and broadcasters were highly profitable -- and enjoyed market power and captive audiences -- they provided a fair amount of space and freedom for news (though rarely as much as journalists wanted). Growing competition changes this.
What to print or broadcast is increasingly determined by the lowest common denominator, as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal showed. Less visibly, commercial pressures also creep more into news judgments. Sensationalism has historically aimed to raise circulation or TV ratings. These forces have intensified.
Editors respond. If a story won't grab people -- if it won't sell -- why bother? Papers and broadcasters meld new media with the old. As this happens, editors lose control, and the whole process can morph into merchandising. On the ABC chat show "The View," the hosts discussed their favorite gifts -- which could be ordered from ABC's Web site. One consultant urges papers to sell goods (presumably, from airline tickets to cars) on their Web sites. The Washington Post Co.'s annual report notes that Internet services encourage "more collaboration between the editorial and business side than in the print medium."
I don't condemn all of this. The fact that readers and viewers have more choices forces journalists to be less arrogant and more creative. But what's "news"? An editor of mine recently resigned to join an online service. I confessed to feeling slightly obsolete. "Don't worry," he said. "You're safe -- you're `content.' " Content? And to think: Once I was a newsman.