Posted by: structureofnews | September 13, 2010

The Social Life of Newspapers

A cute ad from Newsday – the people, it must be said, who famously got only 35 people to sign up for their paid online offering – about the limitations of the iPad.  And I’m not sure they really get the meta-message of this ad, but it’s funny.

So what is the meta-message?  That newspapers – or news services in general – fulfill more than an information need; and that while some may be accidents of time, space and form (lining birdcages, wrapping fish, swatting flies), others are also important (conferring a sense of identity, building community, encouraging civic participation, etc).

All products serve multiple needs:  That Rolex watch doesn’t only tell time, but confers some kind of status or identification.   Yet we often think only (or mostly) of the core functions that we’re interested in – providing valuable or public service information, etc.  That’s not a bad idea in theory – we should focus on what we do well; but we shouldn’t let that blind us to how people approach what we do and how they like to use it.

I recall a striking example in a good book I read years ago, The Social Life of Information, (and I confess I don’t remember all of it), in which a researcher comes across another researcher in a library, painstakingly sniffing old letters sent during the civil war.   Puzzled, he asks the second researcher what he’s doing.  The answer is that, in the old days, letters sent from places where there was a cholera outbreak were disinfected by vinegar; so by finding letters that still had a trace of vinegar and seeing where they were postmarked, you could figure out where the disease predominated in those days.

That’s useful information embedded in those letters; yet if we fixate on the core information that we’re interested in – say just the text – then we lose that other data.   So scanning and digitizing the letter, say, would certainly bring a lot of advantages to researchers; but it also brings with it some disadvantages.

It’s something to bear in mind as we think about The Future of Journalism – it’s not just about us, and what we like to do.  It’s really about how people use what we do and make, and how we can help them use it better.



  1. There can be another tab on the blog as recommended readings, so that you may add books/reports/websites that you find great into the list.

  2. […] (say) as delivery mechanisms for our priceless prose; but newspapers also serve a host of other functions, from lining birdcages to building community links to offering a surrogate identity (you’re a […]

  3. […] care about, and what we produce – news, or information – we lose sight of some of the other missions we fulfil for […]

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