On Sunday I had the pleasure to attend Stanford University graduation ceremonies. The commencement speaker was a guy named Bill Gates. I think he works in tech. It was a sunny, chamber-of-commerce day and I had just a lovely time.
I had come to see friends involved in one way or another with the university’s journalism program, which is housed within the Communications Department. After the big affair at the football stadium, families dispersed to smaller gatherings for each university discipline. Communications Department Chair James Fishkin spoke to a small crowd before conferring diplomas upon his students.
Fishkin said something I’ve thought about a lot over the years, but never had the vocabulary to voice. He spoke of disruption in the news industry resulting in the loss of the “inadvertent audience.”
By its very nature, the audience of a general interest newspaper is “inadvertent.” That is to say, you pick up a newspaper and you never know what you will find in there. You may buy it out of the rack expressly to read what’s underneath that bold headline, but subscribers are buying the whole enchilada. They know that if they leaf through the newspaper they are liable to read about the city council budget here, malaria in the Congo there and perhaps a horseshoes tournament at the local park. Actually, they don’t even know that. They buy into the idea that the newspaper will inform them about things about which they don’t even know they need to be informed. …
Contrast that with post-Internet news absorption. You set Google alerts for “Montrose” to the exclusion of all else. With a few clicks you can have notifications delivered to your cell phone every time the New York Mets score a run, but you may not know where the team is in the standings. You can even create a “paper” that only collects stories from opinionated writers who share your particular worldview.
Many of the technical advances in news delivery have provided incredibly efficient ways to have your belief system confirmed. Unfortunately, that voice inside your own head will crowd out other viewpoints as well as news about all those things you don’t know you need to hear.
This isn’t just a disruption in news delivery, by the way. Think of pop music. We used to listen to the radio all day long; now we set Spotify to stream us songs that sound just like other songs we already like at the exclusion of all else. Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest of them have already guessed what you want to buy based on what you already bought.
Inadvertence provided us with a shared point of reference. If we were all, or at least many of us, leafing through the New York Times or watching Walter Cronkite, we were all sharing a common experience. The news helped shape our collective values and was one of the things that made us Americans. I would never be so bold as to speak for Fishkin (who, by the way, has advanced degrees from Cambridge and Yale), but I think the loss of an inadvertent audience is a big loss for all of us.
“It’s crazy to think that our democracy was dependent on inadvertence,” Fishkin said on Sunday. Crazy indeed.