This is slightly more serious-and-thoughtful than my usual posts, but it's something that has been bothering me more and more of late.
It has become a rather tired joke, since 2000 came and went, to ask "Where's my flying car?" Or, more generally, to wonder why this or that gee-whiz prediction about Life In The Twenty-First Century from 1972 or whenever didn't come true. The answer is almost always "because the person who made that prediction didn't know about this reason," or possibly "because you shouldn't base your ideas of the future on something a cover artist for OMNI dreamed up back in 1986, especially since that was stock art anyway."
But I do have a personal "flying car" and it's very puzzling to me why it isn't flying around: where's my wide-ranging and in-depth news reporting?
If you are old enough to recall, that was one of the big advantages that cable television was going to bring us, in the days when people were still getting used to the idea of having more than four channels to watch. The enormous number of cable channels would mean that news reporting wouldn't be squeezed into a two-hour window between Jeopardy! and T.J. Hooker. There might be whole channels devoted to nothing but news! With a full 24 hours of news programming, they wouldn't be limited to brief, superficial coverage; they'd be able to do in-depth reporting, rivaling print journalism. And with so much time to fill the news wouldn't be limited to covering Washington, New York, Hollywood, and this week's disaster scene; they'd be able to report on developing stories in other parts of the country, and keep viewers informed about the whole world!
And then, a bit more than a decade later, that was also one of the big advantages that The Internet was going to bring us. News stories would have links leading to background information or related news, so reporting would be factual and provide plenty of context.
None of that happened. Instead, the perennial complaint nowadays is how vapid, superficial, emotive, and sloppy news reporting has become, in all media.
My question is why? Where's my Information Age?
It's easy to be cynical and say "well, audiences are stupid and they want stupid reporting." But if that's true, why are news audiences shrinking and aging? Why are newspapers becoming little more than a status symbol for billionaires, like yachts and baseball teams? If people wanted sloppy, superficial reporting, you'd think they'd be tuning in by the tens of millions, and they're not. (As I've said before, blaming the audience's stupidity usually says more about the stupidity in front of the camera.)
As to the sloppiness, there's the oft-trotted-out reason that "It's so competitive: there's enormous pressure to be first with a story." But I don't think that's true. Who chooses a news station to watch based on how quickly they report things? If I like the reporting on WWL-TV in New Orleans, I'm not going to click over to WVUE to see if they're covering something that WWL hasn't gotten to yet.
In fact, I can recall that during the first Gulf War back in 1991, my wife and I found we were much better informed by waiting for newspaper reports than by watching the live reports on TV of reporters standing on a dark rooftop in Riyadh saying "We think something is happening — there's planes flying around, we think," accompanied by shaky, blurry images of something unidentifiable. Quicker isn't better and I suspect being first matters much more to the egos of journalists and network execs than it does to the public.
I've also heard the excuse that "Well, it's too expensive for CNN to keep reporters all over the country and in foreign lands. They can't afford it!" That is true, but it's also irrelevant: there are at least a couple of hundred local news shows in the United States, and it would not cost much to repeat some of their stories on a national news network. The same is true for foreign news reporting. CNN or MSNBC could fill their spare hours with local reports about interesting events. This would also give local news outfits an incentive to do better work, since a well-done story could get picked up nationally — much as print reporters in the old days could hope an article got picked up by the wire services.
Now there may be problems with this, but the point is, I'm not a news network executive. I'm a science fiction writer with a blog. If I can come up with this idea, why can't they? That sort of programming could provide the bulk of CNN's air time, and the savings in not having to produce original shows to fill the emptiness would help the profit margin.
And as to online journalism, reporters are still writing "stories" which are "published" on news sites. That's like using TV cameras to broadcast images of each page of the daily newspaper, and calling that a TV news report. Every online news report should include, at a minimum, links to all relevant original source material, links to biographies and home pages of all individuals in the story, links to related stories, and links to other relevant facts.
So if I'm reading a news story about something Donald Trump said during a visit to a steel mill in Youngstown, I should get links to a profile of Trump, the full text of his speech, the home page of that steel company, stories about the steel business, stories about Youngstown, and perhaps an archive of other Presidential speeches about the steel business. That's not hard: I just did it myself (except for the speech, because it's hypothetical).
We can't even blame this on reporters not understanding these Internet thingies. Most journalists now are children of the 1980s, if not younger. They have grown up in an on-line world. I hear the excuse that reporters have to "generate a lot of content" — well, a huge infodump of background material and links sure looks like content to me. Much more useful than a vox pop quote from someone who couldn't run faster than a reporter.
So: where's my Information Age? Why hasn't some clever venture capitalist tried to put something like this together?
One amazing feature of the Information Age is that you can buy my ebooks!