The era of the salient present and the case for Long News
“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” the sociologist Elise Boulding once wrote. Modern society, she argued, is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”.
That was in 1978. Imagine her reaction to the relentless, Twitter-fuelled news cycles of 2019.
To be a journalist in the 21st Century is to feel like you are running to stand still. At publisher conferences, people discuss burnout and change fatigue. Meanwhile, the news and its delivery moves ever faster, digital transformation is relentless, and business models are crumbling beneath our feet. It feels impossible to think longer-term when journalists and audiences alike are too busy focusing on the chaotic events and overwhelming information flow of the day.
We are living in an increasingly salient present, when the contemporary moment dominates our thoughts and agendas. When the “now” commands all our attention.
I argued in an essay on BBC Future recently that many of the grand challenges of the 21st Century — whether climate change, inequality, or environmental degradation — cannot be tackled unless politicians, policy-makers and individuals ditch their short-term habits.
As journalists, we will be failing in our responsibilities if we do not do the same. Power with a short-term attitude cannot be scrutinised by a media with a similarly narrow horizon. And major global changes that creep forward year-by-year are ignored when we only focus on the latest sensational development.
We need journalism that is wise enough to learn from history and bold enough to look further into the future than the daily news cycle, company quarter, or term of political office.
Think of it as Long News.
I first began thinking about short-termism as a parent. I have been contemplating the future life of my daughter, who was born in 2013. As I wrote in my essay, I realised not long after her birth that she stood a fairly good chance of living long enough to see the 22nd Century: she’ll be in her eighties.
The date 2100 is a milestone frequently cited in climate change news reports, stories about future technologies and science fiction. Yet when I use it in my stories, I rarely consider that my daughter, and millions of others, will be there when this seemingly distant date passes, inheriting the decisions we make today.
Since then, I have been asking myself: how much of the journalism that I produce and oversee will feel relevant and important to my six-year-old when she reaches adulthood — or even old age? What will matter to her about what is happening today?
Out of curiosity, I looked up the front page of BBC News, exactly 10 years ago, from late February 2009:
I was struck by the transience of the stories on this page. With hindsight, how many had true longevity? How many matter now? And crucially, how much could this snapshot inform me about the most impactful events of the time: for instance, the aftermath and human cost of the global financial crisis, which had only occurred a matter of months beforehand?
I’m confident that a decade from now, many of the most attention-grabbing stories of 2019 will be just as hazily remembered, with the pieces leading the news today becoming incremental footnotes within a broader historical story. Meanwhile, there will still be climate change, antibiotic resistance, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, infectious disease, pandemics, drug addiction, cancer, and aging populations, to name just a few of the longer-term shifts shaping this century.
The stories that news cannot cover
Much of the news — in its traditional form — is an incomplete way to understand the world as it really it is. News captures a key moment in time, but misses a lot of what matters about the wider issues we face.
As Rob Wijnberg of The Correspondent argued recently, the headlines are dominated by sensational, exceptional, negative, and current events.
News is “generally that which is shocking, scandalous, or appalling enough to evoke comment”, he wrote. “Because the news usually keeps its eye trained on today, it blinds us to the longer term, both past and future. Informing us about power structures that have grown over time, like the historical roots of racism, or alerting us to gradual societal changes, like the financialization of our economy, is simply not natural to the forms and rhythms of daily news.”
In many cases, news has also become drama: a daily soap opera that plays to our emotions, and blurs with the entertainment delivered through our all-purpose screens.
This is not a new problem. Consider a survey of US TV news from the mid-1990s, conducted by a group of activists called Rocky Mountain Media Watch. They recorded the news output of around 100 local TV news stations from across the US and identified three common themes dominating the majority of bulletins. They named them:
- The Mayhem Index Stories about crime and natural and human-made disasters, provoking “excitement, fear, terror and alienation… such violence can have a greater impact than fantasy or action entertainment, precisely because it is real”.
- The Fluff Index Comic relief to the darkness of mayhem in news: cuddly animals, cute children, contests, anchor chatter, and profiles of the rich and famous. “Fluff, like mayhem and sports, elicits a deep emotional response in its viewers; it titillates and elicits warmth, humour, familiarity, expectation and the excitement of voyeurism.”
- The Pavlov Index A “predictable architecture… featuring the crime scene, the grieving relative, the perpetrator, the disaster, the courtroom, the friendly anchors, the home run, and so forth”.
To this list, in 2019 you might also add an Outrage Index. The news is no longer a passive experience, only for transmitting facts. Rather it serves as a fuel that encourages audiences to express their identity, politics and beliefs. And by incentivising journalists with page views and concurrents alone, we risk creating the environment that fosters this strand of commissioning. On social media, outrage travels further.
As Harvard media scholar Hossein Derakhshan has pointed out: “When we read a news story about climate change, corrupt politicians, or abusive celebrities, we not only become aware of the details of what happened, but also feel ourselves caught up in the drama of the story. We take sides, and we want our side to win.”
Yet Derakhshan also makes what I believe is an important distinction, which provides a cause for optimism: news, he writes, is not the same thing as journalism. It is just one of many kinds of possible journalistic output.
And therefore, the way that we as journalists report on new concepts, ideas and people has the space to change. Journalism doesn’t have to be delivered the way it has for the past couple of decades, if editors and reporters can challenge their own assumptions about what news is, and should be.
After all, media consumption habits have changed, so we can change how we report on what is happening in the world too.
The good news is that many journalists globally are now forging ahead with smart, important work in this vein of Long News — both at legacy media and in start-ups — using the full array of tools now available to digital publishers: podcasts, apps, multimedia, annotated pages and so on. The upside of digital change is that we needn’t be bound by the templated practices of the past: a web page is a relative blank canvas compared with newspaper column inches. In fact, the harder thing to shift is accepted organisational practice — the norms about how we’ve always done things.
On BBC Future, our own first steps towards a Long News approach is our Deep Civilisation season, which aims to take the long-view of humanity and society. With each article, we’re taking a familiar theme — democracy, technology, religion, the brain, cities and so on — and exploring it through the lens of decades, centuries or millennia. In the latest story, we explored what the collapse of historic civilisations can tell us about the risks to our own modern society (in a nutshell: the signs are worrying).
Long News needn’t be as direct as this though. Also, for clarity, it doesn’t need to be long-form either. It’s a mindset shift, rather than a journalistic style. So it might be employing the wisdom of history to daily coverage, going an extra step to provide the context that helps audiences understand how event fits into the longer-term picture, applying resources in a smarter way, or exploring consequences further into the future than we might once have felt confident enough to do.
I also have a few hunches about what else needs to change:
- Long-term journalism requires long-term business strategy
For many publications, the past few years have been characterised by “Shiny Things Syndrome”, according to Julie Posetti, the author of a recent Reuters Institute report on publisher innovation. Bots, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, Facebook Live, Snapchat: every few months, there’s a new thing.
“In the absence of purposeful strategy and reflective practice, ad-hoc, frantic, and often short-term experimentation is unlikely to lead to sustainable innovation or real progress,” writes Posetti. Journalism with a longer view is built on sustainable strategy.
- Be aware of our biases
Consider the “recency bias”, for example. This is a cognitive bias that means recent information looms larger in our consciousness. So when we’re overwhelmed with real-time events everywhere we turn, we give this information undue weight.
The author and writer Tom Chatfield has written about how this bias can cause problems with how big data is interpreted, but I think his argument applies just as much to the ever-burgeoning volume of information we navigate in the digital age. “The moment you start looking backwards to seek the longer view,” he writes, “you have far too much of the recent stuff and far too little of the old. Short-sightedness is built into the structure, in the form of an overwhelming tendency to over-estimate short-term trends at the expense of history.”
- Seek better metrics of impact
There is perhaps no tool more likely to focus journalists on the present than Chartbeat and real-time analytics.
As Caitlin Petre of Rutgers University wrote in a recent paper on publisher analytics: “Much as electronic gambling machines are designed to maximize what is known in that industry as ‘time-on-device’, the ever-fluctuating analytics on the Chartbeat dashboard were designed to demand a high level of sustained attention and engagement from users.”
She quotes a Chartbeat developer: “‘The dashboard wants you… watch it.’”
We need a way to measure impact that’s more meaningful than the short-term addictive rush of spiking concurrents.
- Collaboration between publishers — and audiences
Many senior editors will tell you that it is a steep challenge to find the time, money and resources to tackle bigger, longer-term stories worthy of investment and coverage when the daily news cycle needs to be staffed and managed. The “will” is there from many of these editors — but the “how” is the hard part.
Collaboration and conversation between publications can open up new possibilities, and an opportunity to bring together journalists to discuss and strategise how we cover long-term challenges together. The same goes for working with audience communities through engaged journalism.
- Ignore the network effect
In other words, just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean we should.
The Correspondent’s Rob Wijnberg again: “Their own excessive news consumption predisposes journalists to believe that what’s happening in the world right this instant, and what’s the most important story to tell right now, is whatever’s getting a lot of airplay in other media. That makes it easy and safe to do the same. Then no one can be blamed for over-reporting it, because everyone is responsible for that.”
- Foster digital product design for Long News
If we prioritised a long-term view from our journalism, how would that change product design? What would we do differently?
For example, Facebook, Instagram and other closed-wall social networks make design choices that keep people on their platform, where the news they consume often lacks context. There is a public interest argument for why publishers should avoid doing the same, embracing the possibilities of the open web in both design and practice. What if product design focused on helping audiences discover a longer-picture view within their media diet?
None of these proposals alone can create a longer term view in journalism, but the first step is to recognise how the salient present is shaping our editorial decisions. I believe that effectively reporting on the grand challenges and major societal shifts of the 21st Century requires a change in our journalistic practice — and it begins by widening the lens.