It’s news YOU CAN USE!
It’s not that journalists don’t know how to provide actionable information; we do this all the time, just only for certain people. In the era of paid-referral links, many of our most respected news sources have put journalists to work on a kind of information-concierge service for the consumer class, offering detailed recommendations for the best standing desks and smart-home appliances, but little health advice for those who work all day on their feet or juggle bills to make rent. We hear a chorus of hot tips for “smarter living,” and near silence on how to survive in America. The economist James Hamilton put it well in a panel at ONA last year, “There is no Wirecutter for the poor.”
City Bureau is doing massively important work in Chicago and I love everything about how they do it. For the longest time the bigger papers covered certain neighborhoods and didn’t cover others and everybody pretended it was the fault of people in those neighborhoods for not buying the paper, ie we’ll cover it when we have readers there. Well, the internet did do one thing to journalism which was to upend the idea that you only want to read about shit going on literally next door and then only if it winds up on your porch.
Advertisers and city leader-types always resented the shit out of stories that made “their” town look bad, like no, our schools are perfect and our housing stock is of the highest caliber and so what if people are dying from preventable environmental causes or shooting each other, you’re making us look bad! And so the coverage shifts, bit by bit, to the people the EIC’s wife knows from her book club, and the things they care about.
Consumer journalism has its place but as people have less and less money to consume, it’s incumbent upon journalism to, you know, at least know how to do something else. I can’t tell you how many local TV newscasts have this “news YOU can use” or “fighting for YOU” segment where they deal with a customer service department for someone.
It’s fine, I guess, I’m glad Mrs. Peters got her cable bill sorted out but can we please also cover a system that persistently outsources every single aspect of service such that unless you have a large Twitter following or a TV station at your back you can’t get anyone to listen to you? We spend half our lives screaming at machines, like Alexa, dismantle late capitalism please.
Journalism should be useful, but what is useful to someone who has no money for rent in a segment about Amazon Prime Day? Or Black Friday? What is useful about one person getting their insurance company to listen to them if there are thousands who can’t be heard?
I really don’t love the implication that the only kind of news you can “use” is something that affects what you can buy. Voting information is news you can use. Crime reports are news you can use. Political and policy debates involve news you can “use” to live your life in a goddamn democracy, let’s really get crazy here. Once you accept the premise that ALL news is useful you really start to see what can be done.
Kids in cages is news you can use, to let them out.