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The March 28-April 4, 2011, edition of the struggling news magazine Newsweek—which I admittedly have not read in years— provides some of the finest articles I have read in many months, illustrates the limits of online and social media, and shows why editors matter.
There is great benefit from both edited and unedited media and I don’t believe they have to be seen in dichotomous choices for the future of media. But I believe those who argue they don’t need to edited media doom themselves to narrowness and ignorance.
If I relied only on the links I receive daily from colleagues on Facebook, my news alerts for topics of interest, or digital listings of stories, I would miss the most important contribution of edited media—the service editors provide by reviewing and thinking about the world and putting journalists to work to provide a coordinated understanding of the available information. This week’s Newsweek epitomises that reality.
Although I often have my attention drawn to information and stories of interest from my social media, the pattern of stories and information sent to me would not have led me to Bill Emmott’s Newsweek story on the impact of disasters on politics, economics, and national psychology or Paul Theroux’s explanation of how Japan’s history has shaped its culture and how the generous global response to the earthquake and tsunami is forcing it to confront the fact that it is not alone and isolated in the face of geographical and physical constraints.
Had I relied on to the multiple news websites I peruse weekly, the ways they are presented and the ways that I search for news on them would not have led me to Newsweek’s fascinating story of the nuclear disaster at an Idaho test station in 1961 that may have been the result of a murder-suicide, its account of why a London murder has led to a boycott of Coca-Cola, or its account of why political ignorance in America is higher than that in European countries.
My point here is not that we should all be rushing out to subscribe to Newsweek (My apologies to Sydney Harmon, Barry Diller and Tina Brown), but that the functions of editors matter. Having someone look at the world and see ways that it fits together, have editors coordinate and incentive talented writers, and having editors create a collection of stories and information continues to produce value.
Those who believe that news, information, and understanding of the world can come through a disaggregated and uncoordinated flow of information and stories, much of which is not prepared by professional writers on a regular basis, miss the entire reason for the success of edited media over the past 300 years.
I do not wish to be construed as saying that online and social media do not make enormous contributions to our communications ability, but until they mature to the point they can support regular oversight and thought about the world and compensate professionals for whom investigating and reporting developments is their primary employment, digital media will not be able to replace the contributions of well edited print media.
After a decade and a half of digital media it is clear that we are able to move news and information to those platforms, but we are nowhere near the point we can shut off the presses without a great deal of loss of oversight and understanding about the world around our lives.