ASPEN, Colo.—It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single news consumer in possession of a free minute must be in want of a cat video.
The whole Internet-and-cats thing—a meta-meme about the mystic makeup of the Internet itself—is one of the stickiest there is when it comes to discussions of the World Wide Web. The Internet loves its cats! The cats love their Internet! The kitty cliches write themselves: The greatest collection of knowledge that humanity has ever assembled—a collection of information and emotion that puts any previous effort to shame—is, on top of everything else, an enormous litter box.
Jon Steinberg is no stranger to this, um, purrfect storm of Internet memery. Steinberg is now the CEO of the Daily Mail in North America. He was formerly the president and COO of Buzzfeed. He knows his cat videos. And during a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, put on by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Steinberg parted ways with the ultimate Internet cliche, imploring the audience to end their assumptions about a feline-ified Internet. It is more than cats! he said. It is also, while we're at it, more than GIFs! It is more than quizzes! It is more than all the other trivialities that those who enjoy criticizing the Internet as an epistemological entity like to offer as evidence for their criticism!
"It's almost as if 100 years ago," Steinberg said of the cat-video criticism, "all people did was read hard news—and now, suddenly, all they do is read entertainment news."
Not so, of course. "Since the dawn of time," Steinberg said, melodramatically and probably correctly, "there has been a much larger appetite for entertainment than there has been for hard news." People have always gotten their Serious Information with a side of whimsy. Web-based news environments—like Buzzfeed's, like the Daily Mail's, and also like The New York Times's and The Atlantic's—may give us more outlets for that whimsy, but the basic dynamics haven't changed.
We have always, on some level, had cat videos.
And: "There's nothing wrong with that," Steinberg continued. In fact, news outlets' ability to provide their readers with entertainment is a good thing. "Life is incredibly difficult, and people have enormous challenges that impact them from day to day, and they need some pleasant way to get away from it and enjoy themselves," Steinberg said. "That doesn't meant that they don't care about hard news, but it means that there's a bigger appetite for entertainment."
Which is also to say: There's a bigger appetite for cat videos. And it's also to say that... well, that should be no cause for concern. Because, though there may be more entertainment options out there—there may be more cat videos—there's also more hard news. David Leonhardt, a Times reporter and the moderator of Steinberg's session, declared that, when it comes to information availability in the Internet age, "if anything, things are getting better."
"Way better!" Steinberg replied. "There's way more hard news consumed now than I think ever before."