Let us start by saying that news does not “exist”. That is, it is not a commodity to be found out there, somewhere, which just needs some tweaking and chiseling to be presented on paper. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be journalists, but jewel polishers (admittedly, a much better-earning activity).
Now, in my philosophical studies I always despised relativism (know your Nietzsche), and yet it’s clear that my news is not always your news, and that news for you is not always news for me. If all news were news for all, we wouldn’t have hundreds of pages to choose from every morning. Perhaps one or two, with the bare facts we didn’t know yesterday, would suffice.
To someone from three or four centuries ago, newspapers would probably look like a madman’s banter (the internet would probably trigger some sort of neural crash): disconnected facts that get old in a mere 24 hours, without even undergoing a proper study. Yet are we so sure that we’re much different from that man? After all, nobody reads every single piece of news on CNN’s website, and then follows its evolution over the days. Rather, we’re much more likely to select a few topics of our interest and dedicate our attention to them. Personally, I’m completely oblivious to what goes on in sports, I more or less know what’s happening in British politics, and I follow closely terrorism and the Syrian civil war. Unless something truly unpredictable happens – most commonly, alas, incidents claiming multiple lives – I’m more likely to be updated on something I’m already following than being exposed to something completely new.
The problem with news is that it’s not really useful per se. What’s useful are updates, new pieces of information on which to make our decisions. But by their very definition, updates are not news – at best, they’re follow-ups. They rarely make the front page. They might be good to keep older readers interested, but cannot draw new ones. The best example is climate change: it’s one of the most, or the most, important issue of our times, and its news traction suffers from tremendous fatigue. It’s usually up to the scientists to find some new angle on which to shake our more alarmist sides. And yet climate change goes on, even when it’s not mentioned on any newspaper.
All this talk of how news is essentially a conventional construct might feel like it’s building journalism’s coffin, but actually we should rejoice. If reality is less of a hard core than we thought, it means journalism can, to an extent, decide what’s worthy of the first page. We can choose to make climate change the big news again, to move from the magazine to the front page.
Ultimately, it’s a battle of resilience: will the readers keep reading until they’re educated to the “new news”, or will they let the paper die before it achieves anything? That’s a huge question mark. We writers are on our side of the battle, and we can only keep doing our job.