The Great Limitations of Journalism's Web Revolution

The information revolution was supposed to change the way we think about information, but it's merely changing the way we access it.

One of the supposed advantages of journalism's Internet age is that the Web provides a breadth and variety of news that is unparalleled in human history. Twenty years ago, the local newspaper dropped on our front stoop. Today every news source in the solar system streams through our browsers. I can sample from dozens of excellent worldwide newspapers, supplement that with analysis from scores of free magazine sites and top it off with observations from thousands of blogs. In a cozy waterfall of RSS and Google News, world events and myriad sage commentary flows unbridled and fills us with knowledge that's only fully knowable in the Information Age.

That's the vision. This is the reality. Even in our brave new world where online news is more popular than radio or print, a new Pew survey finds that 78% of Americans get the vast majority of their news from only one to five sources. Twenty-one percent of Web users get their online news from a single source. I have no insight into what kind of media readers are consuming, but the relatively minuscule number of sources we're consulting suggests to me that we don't really care that the solar system of news is streaming through our browser. We just want the online version of the TV shows already droning throughout dinner and the newspapers already lying at our stoops. "Thanks Universe of Information, but I'll stick with what I was having."

If we riff a bit on the idea of media consumption, then think of it this way: the Web largely isn't changing herbivores and carnivores into omnivores. It's just letting us eat more. It's not dramatically changing what we read -- or at least what kind of news we read -- but rather it's letting us read the news we always read more often, and from screens of various sizes. The information revolution was supposed to change the way we think about information, but what if it's merely changing the way we access it?

I hope this isn't coming off as Luddite. (I swear, I value my variously sized information screens immensely!) But the combination of self-ghettoized news consumers and the ability of the Internet to incubate its own split realities does not have happy implications. I'll close with what I wrote in an entry on the "Disinformation Revolution" for The Atlantic's 10 Ideas of the Decade:

In his 2008 book True Enough, Farhad Manjoo explains that the fragmentation of the Internet allows different groups to create, and live in, their own "split" realities. Facts can't find us anymore--instead, we find our own "facts" in the corners of the Internet that reflect our beliefs. "Truthiness," the 2006 Miriam Webster word of the year coined by Stephen Colbert, means "truth that comes from the gut." In other words, it is belief cross-dressing as certainty. The World Wide Web is a resource many times larger than the largest library in history. Yet the very size and structure of the Internet guarantees that we will find what we we're looking for rather than what we need to know.