Why do we read the news?
What are we looking for when, on a Sunday morning, we settle in with a copy of the Times or The Post or the Tribune?
It helps, first, to understand where the news comes from.
Newspapers are, at their core, papers with roots in a community that has boundaries. The fact that they own large buildings limits them to a region roughly as broad as the view from the top floor. The New York Times watches over metro New York, the Tribune stares across Illinois’ flat planes. Both hang over unflinching views only occluded by arbitrary impediments like smog, other buildings, a tight deadline or the curvature of the earth.
Inside each of these towers is the throbbing cerebrum of the News industry: the newsroom. The newsroom is the narrative version of a pharmaceutical company’s lab. It pumps out prescribed stories to different things that may as well be called capsules (Front Page news, Business news, Entertainment news, Culture news) for anyone in search of a fix. They’re color-coded (thanks to halftone CMYK printing) and childproof (approximately 8th grade reading level).
Like all labspace, the newsroom requires an enclosed area with ample room for the stories to blossom or coalesce into something serially reproducible. Labs are expensive and require everyday use to justify their cost. Here in the lab, the scientists of daily life pull stories from the collective ether that hangs inside, supersaturated and full of relevance, just above their newsdesks and heads. Stories are slated for production and distribution after experimentation and testing in the lab.
It also helps to know what makes the news.
The news story, like the pharmaceutical drug or the streamlined production of fast food, is composed with the delicate finesse of a chemist and the precision of industrial equipment. These two methods apply an equally objective rigor to the streamlined procedure of producing the story The stereotypical news chemist carefully mixes together crystalline xanthine alkaloids (caffeine) and reporting with elements like diction and structure to produce ‘all the news that’s fit to print.’
Then it gets put down on paper — low-cost paper called newsprint which, like many of the stories appearing on its pages, is subject to consumption, weathering, loss of relevance, and eventually decomposition shortly after leaving the assembly line. There is, in fact, an odd similarity between the hunt for efficiency hidden in the margins of the newspaper and BK’s quest for an ever-greater ability to churn out whoppers. So much so that volumetric boasts of newsprint whirring through the printer begin to suggest increased capacity of the MPB94…
Then the news is sent to readers, already a little old and maybe a little soggy from it’s time beneath a heatlamp when it reaches those readers, who consume it like strawberries, or shoes, or a hamburger. With the same predictable regularity of its purpose for publication, newsprint becomes fertilizer, eventually providing the kind of hollow sweet taste to the tongue that it once gave the eyes one languid Sunday morning.
And now perhaps something about the news itself.
The impetus for any one of these stories is an oft-overlooked part of the story itself, as it may require hard thought, a real effort. Perhaps the kind of effort that would require a government to educate its citizens beyond an eighth-grade level, respond to the evaporation of hegemony (a word that somehow manages to sound new, some three thousand years late) and credit (a word that reminds us that “he or she believes”…but in what?). Maybe it’s the effort to build more than a hyper-focused nuclear moment of pause into our atomized days.
Exposure of a story’s origin, however, is also a danger: The explanation of a systemic cause might end up crippling the relevance of all this news. If we knew who wrote the Bible would it be as good? What would physicists do once they found out what’s up with the universe? Would we still recognize brands like Advil if a single ibuprofen indefinitely cured headaches? Would that encapsulated white powder ever have been as commercially attractive if it were a panacea?
All of this serves to underscore that the news is rarely new, just as the novel is no longer particularly novel. News is now an industry that strives to churn out the Most Important Stories at the fastest rate. Everyday stories deliver profits if they’re handled right, relevance has value that can be publicly traded, and the austerity of the impartial press is something subject to corporate oversight as just a thin branch in a fat conglomerate. (Ask Advance Publications about the performance of Conde Nast publications about the performance of their magazine The New Yorker about the performance of their fact-checking department which keeps the publication from slipping over the edge of relevance into the territory of fiction, that made up fantasy land of irrelevance…)
The New York Times counts the stories out in minutes, perhaps the Tribune tries to do it in seconds (to save their bankrupt ass), while somewhere on the outskirts of the blogosphere, the livebloggers and internauts are splitting the second to reconfigure life’s tick-tick-ticking atomic structure and bring us truly new news at the speed of reality itself. Maybe it’s all done so that no one notices the clock.
Is this treading water, progressing, or chasing our tail? Do I prefer the quick solution of the heartwarming tale to the reason such a story is so uncommon? Is that reasoning a little fuzzy?
Perhaps this is why we refer to the first instance of a story as “breaking news.” It is more important that one breaks news, that it is segmentable, that it is suitable for periodical publication than ensuring that the story is presented in its totality.