The Changing Nature of “News”
What Are News Values?
“Man bites dog” is an old newsroom joke demonstrating what kind of event would be considered
universally newsworthy to tell any audience, what would justifiably make it to the printed front page or the
opening moments in a television newscast. It is a story that has time-honored news values, including
timeliness, proximity, conflict, impact, and unusualness.
The story is timely as well as local, and the conflict arises from the notion that a dog is no longer man's
best friend, which has broad implications and consequences. Of course, it is unusual, and if the man
biting the canine turns out to be a celebrity, then the story has prominence as well. And if the dog is
famous (appears in commercials, movies, or skateboards in aYouTube clip), well, then we have an
undeniably newsworthy story with double the celebrity value.
But such simple definitions of news have become splintered and confused in an increasingly chaotic and
crowded media landscape. How the local man-bites-dog story is told in the 21st century depends on the
audience and the delivery mode—whether it is received as text, digital, or broadcast, or all these
combined. The content of the story would not stop at the simplistic text answers to the most fundamental
and traditional questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how in an inverted-pyramid-style story of
It would be an elective experience for the audience on many platforms and in many shades of intensity
driven by personal interests.
Today, a consumer would go to the newspaper's Web site, see the bulleted brief or a simple headline—
perhaps 15 words underlined and in blue, click on it, and watch a video of the man being taken away by
the police, perhaps following a car chase resulting in a reality-TV-ready arrest. The bitten dog's owners
would be interviewed on a separate audio podcast, with links to information about the breed, how to
report pet abuse, plus a Flash-enhanced timeline of man-bites-dog incidents in history, as well as a photo
slideshow with audio of comments from neighbors and coworkers on the “canine-ivorous” man's recent
behavior. A link would be available for a longer text profile of the man who bit the dog, accompanied by a
visual graphic of a timeline, explicitly defining the chronology demonstrating how exactly the bite
happened, and a separate graphic of the anatomy of a man's head and mouth compared with a dog's. A
Man Bites Dog blog would be available for readers to post their comments as well as their own video and
audio about related stories. Readers/viewers/users would then vote online their preferences for segments
of the story they liked most, and pieces of the story would likely become viral through blogging and social
network sites such as MySpace or Facebook, with related photos posted on Flickr. This is a case study
demonstrating a model of information flow that is more about less.
The newsworthiness of the story would be closely connected to the voluntary behavior of the audience
and would shift according to the needs of that audience. The story would then erupt into a user-driven
multimedia package with nearly infinite incarnations involving perhaps one mobile journalist, several
staffers and freelancers, citizen journalists, bloggers, and consumers providing different informational
pieces of the totally puzzling experience.
Timeliness, Proximity, Unusualness, Prominence, Impact, Conflict, and Human Interest
The definitions of news have altered because the playing field for news has been disrupted, redefined,
and sculpted to court and suit a highly fickle audience. It is an audience no longer defined principally by
geography but also by social demographics, age, education, ideology, affiliations, behaviors, and specific
media use. They can create a self-motivated audience craving more information about fewer topics or
less information about more topics. The 21st-century media landscape for news offers the possibility for
consumers to delve into topics a mile wide and inch deep or an inch wide and 100 miles deep. They can
be mobile and technologically savvy consumers who no longer sit patiently for the delivery of the
newspaper on the front doorstep to read the news or who lounge passively in their living room at the
appointed time of 5, 6, 10, or 11 p.m. to watch the newscast delivered by two well-paid anchor readers.
These are often consumers who intend to participate in the choice of news stories offered, the gathering
of news, public commentary on the news, and the ongoing news choices made by editors and journalists.
This is a different approach to the news than we have seen in the previous media age beginning in the
mid-19th century of top-down, elitist, editor-driven journalism. So today's journalism requires a
modernized toolbox of news judgment factors. Yes, there is still an audience who waits for the newspaper
every morning to enjoy it with a cup of coffee and then unwinds at night with a favorite local newscast. But
this is a shrinking audience. The feared extinction of this audience and the necessity for news producers
to chase new audiences and capture their attention is why news has changed.
In generations past, “readers needed news and had limited ways to learn about current events,” Michael
Hirschorn wrote in the December 2007 edition of The Atlantic. “Editors would tell us what to read and we
would read it. News didn't have to be interesting, because it was important, and any self-styled citizen of
the world needed to know what was important” (p. 137).
In the 21st century, not only is the reader/user/participant pressed for time and bombarded by more
options for information, but the walls between user and news provider have become porous. In many
instances, the barricades have fallen completely away as citizen journalists contribute to mainstream
media and to their own viable, vetted citizen journalism Web sites and popular blogs. Since the debut of
South Korea's OhmyNews International in 2000 and, later on, domestic citizen journalist hyperlocal sites
such as http://Backfence.com, http://Goskokie.com, http://NorthwestVoice.com, and hundreds more, the
formerly passive consumers now want to be part of the journalistic process. They want to participate in
stories important specifically to them, but they also require the option to consume stories offered by the
mainstream press that they could not otherwise find on their own. The question of access in many
instances is still insurmountable for citizen journalists. Though bloggers can get press credentials at a
national political convention, citizen journalists are still not granted wide backstage access to the events,
drawing rooms, and offices of major newsmakers.
A tolerance for top-down “news you should know” that fits rigidly into the old definitions of news as
construed by a finite group of journalists in a closed-door editorial meeting has given way to a consumer
push for a breadth of stories told in a variety of ways. These stories can forgo the traditional justifications
of timeliness, proximity, unusualness, prominence, impact, and conflict, as long as they can be sheltered
by the umbrella of human interest.
And it is that humanistic element, the connecting anecdotal link, the character portal leading the audience
into the story, that drives the news consumer's desire and appetite for news. The overall dramatic shifts in
types of stories from text, digital, audio, and video outlets toward a focusing on citizen sourcing and a
casual writing style reflect this cultural reverence for the personal story and a revolutionized set of news
definitions. No longer will a story be relevant solely because it delivers news such as “The mayor said
Monday” edict. The story must be told in a compelling way across a variety of media, illuminating the
stories of individuals while personally connecting to the lives of the audience. It is no longer one door the
consumer enters that opens onto the news but a series of doors, windows, hallways, and obscured
passages that the consumer can choose from.
Just as the audience has become accustomed to changing cable channels in a millisecond, they can
instantly click away from the news site and go somewhere else. Logistically, a printed newspaper now is
the last to cross the finish line on news. If something is breaking news and is hot, it has already been
reported in a video online, recounted on TV and radio, and blogged about on countless sites. Digital
media has stolen print's thunder. So printed news reinforces and reinterprets the news through a different
lens, rather than breaking the news first. The consumer already knows that there was a fire in a
department store from TV, radio, and Web sites. Now they want to read the longer story of the firefighter
who saved the customer.
So many options compete for the news consumer's time that delivering a relevant story across any and
every platform becomes a race to offer the most useful, engaging, and informative content. Never has
accurate and keen reporting been as crucial or eloquent and insightful multimedia storytelling been as
important to capturing the attention of the audience. As the traditional elements of newsworthiness
continue to contribute to the decisions of what stories are played in print, online, and digitally in broadcast
and radio, additional forces factor into news judgment.
News does not have to portray a rigid sense of timeliness; the story can be current, ongoing, recent,
upcoming, or merely hypothetical. It can also be any item, individual, phase, trend, or event that was
previously unknown to the audience. While the news may be commonplace in one area of the community
or the world, it is “new” to this target news consumer. Timeliness has become elastic. Just because an
event happened yesterday no longer deems it automatically newsworthy. The notion of yesterday's news
told today or today's news delivered tomorrow has evaporated as news can be communicated digitally in
real time. Traditional timeliness is an antiquated notion left over from an era when citizens would not know
of a news item unless it appeared in the newspaper or on radio or television. Because of text messaging,
cell phone photography and videography, as well as audio recording on portable digital voice recorders,
unfolding news events can often be broadcast live by amateurs on their Web sites. Consider the images
and reactions from citizens following any number of recent tragedies; these were urgent, immediate, and
raw visuals and commentary that were unfiltered by professional journalists. The lesson of immediacy that
was learned in those unfortunate events is that no one has to wait for the reporter to arrive before the
“news” is published, disseminated, and absorbed by a wide audience.
Because of the universal accessibility to publishing, a news story is no longer constrained by geographic
proximity. A global economy mandates a global information network, so a story about a young girl in
Kenya struggling to succeed in school is as engaging and newsworthy as a story about a young girl in
Kenosha struggling in school would be to local Wisconsin readers. At a time when we are submerged in
the infinite and boundless flow of information online, and Facebook and LinkedIn users swap personal
stories across all physical boundaries, it becomes less important to define proximity limited by spatial
closeness as a news parameter. Human interest serves as the overarching, inclusive bridge.
The irony here is that being unlimited by the shackles of location in mainstream media, hyperlocal news
has built an enormous following in community journalism sites, weekly publications, zoned newspaper
editions, newspaper Web sites, and blogs. Traditional media outlets such as newspapers, magazines,
and the local television or radio station no longer have exclusive rights over local news. A single
community blogger can succeed in informing a local audience of local city council votes or even the latest
scores in middle school football. An audience can be built around a garden club, alumni group, or local
transportation issue, offering news that would no doubt be ignored by the larger press.
“What does it mean to me?” is still a question the news consumer wants answered in his or her media.
While the impact, importance, and consequence of a story for the consumer can be subjective, it remains
influential as a factor in news judgment. But the interest quotient has shifted from the flat response “Now I
know” to “What can I do about it now?” The news user in this current 21st-century iteration wants to take
the information from a simple story told and apply it elsewhere, transforming facts into action, perhaps,
and using this story as a springboard for deeper examination, reflection, active feedback, involvement,
and possible advocacy.
For instance, at the end of the 20th century, a simple text story of 10 or more inches in the metro section
of a newspaper reporting on a city council vote to increase property taxes in a suburb or city would quote
only council members on their official comments during the meeting. Now, however, that simple story
evolves into a multimedia package telling citizens what action they can take, how to contact council
members, and how to have a home's value reassessed, providing profiles with photos and audio of each
council member and the mayor, along with a podcast of the meeting, a video of citizen reaction to the
vote, an avenue for bloggers to post suggestions, as well as photos of homeowners and their homes
affected by the property tax hike. Still, the news of the tax increase may be the same, but the manner in
which the news is delivered is a thousand times more complex, urgent, and democratic. The rationale for
that delivery has morphed into a more layered and faceted portrayal of the news guided by the
consumer's needs. News gathering has become much more complicated, enhanced, some say, by the
technology of multimedia tools, while others claim that the multimedia options have only burdened the
consumer with unnecessary bells and whistles that dilute the impact of the message, distracting the
consumer from the core news itself.
While unusualness still holds true as one undeniable factor in defining the focus for news; the story must
be more than just odd, such as the man-bites-dog story. As the media reaches far beyond the boundaries
of town, city, county, state, country, and continent, what is unusual for one audience group is
commonplace for another culture, and not even a distant culture. What is understood as an everyday
occurrence in the far western suburbs of Chicago may be unheard of within the city limits. Is this a story
that for the main audience would be unknown or inaccessible without the journalist's intervention? Is this
a trend, event, or person so little understood or examined broadly that an illuminating and enterprising
story informing the audience would be edifying and useful to the consumer? Or is the consideration of this
as unusual merely a reflection of the journalist's myopic view of the community and the broader world?
And would publishing this as news alienate part of the audience and only underscore the notion of the
traditional ivory tower editors making decisions disconnected from the broader consumer's interests? The
element of unusualness must be viewed through the lens of diversity and inclusiveness, as news
gatherers must embrace a higher sensitivity to all groups whether they are defined by age, race, gender,
religion, ideology, disability, geography, education, income, or behavior. Because a news item is
personally unfamiliar to the journalist or editor, this does not grant it unusual status. In the sweeping reach
possible with 21st-century media, a narrow view of newsworthiness may render the news itself irrelevant.
An individual's celebrity or prominence can control decisions of newsworthiness, but who is labeled a
celebrity in the transaction of news has changed. While webzines, blogs, television entertainment news
shows, and gossip columns in the mainstream press have maintained an obsession with the comings,
goings, arrests, births, deaths, and outrageous acts of a handful of Hollywood and MTV royalty, the
culture's celebration of the amateur has invited a new brand of individual into the spotlight. A college
student can become globally well-known for a clever YouTube clip, while a diligent inventor can be
vaulted into googledom for an ingenious solution to a universal problem, such as a prescription bottle that
easily opens or a coffee mug that does not spill. Just by inclusion in the story itself, the individual secures
his or her own celebrity and prominence. Being listed as a source in a reaction story run on a popular
Web site can turn the average Jane Doe into an oft-quoted and sought after expert on even the most
Conflict is a historically traditional sustained news value and is a fundamental component of human
nature. A 2007 study in Newspaper Research Journal of Yahoo! News found that both producers and
users of news ranked conflict as the news value occurring second most often in more than 1,000 news
stories, ranked only behind impact. It appears that no matter how the news changes in content, style, or
sourcing, the drive to understand conflict, whether it is political, social, professional, interpersonal, or
more general, influences decisions to present news and information that contain these dramatic human
Economic Factors Affecting the News
The first decade of the 21st century was tumultuous for the traditional media. Newspaper closings,
layoffs, downsizing, revenue slides, breakups, and sell-offs of major chains such as Knight Ridder and
Tribune Company seemed to further erode a wounded industry scrambling for identity, relevance, and
profitability. Declining circulation among the majority of the country's news papers had been in effect for
more than 20 years, and circulation was only stabilizing or gaining in a few markets. The former editor of
The Wall Street Journal, Paul Steiger, reminisced on his 40 years as a journalist in a Journal column in
The cornucopia of national, international and business news, sports and especially opinion available free
on the Web is rich beyond historical parallel. Anyone with a fact, a comment, a snapshot or a videoclip
can self-publish and instantly compete with the professionals…. What happens next? Change, rapid and
largely unpredictable. Nearly every company in the industry needs major new revenue, big cost
reductions or a healthy dollop of each. (para. 8, 47)
As readers fell away from traditional print news, and advertising revenues migrated online, with
newspaper Web sites accounting for nearly 34% of local online advertising in 2007, news consumers also
moved online, but not exclusively. Consumers did not report reading only the newspaper or only going
online for news. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism in the 2007 The State of the News
Media report, about 92 million people around the country get their news online, compared with
about51million Americans who buy a daily newspaper and 124 million who read the printed newspaper.
This number accounts perhaps for all those copies left on tables in Starbucks and dental offices across
the country as some single copies of newspapers have several readers. In 2007, 90 newspapers in this
country had a reach of 64% of adults in their communities each week. In spite of closings of papers such
as the Cincinnati Post and the threat of closing at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as layoffs and firings at
the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others, there were more than 1,450 newspapers in the
United States as of 2006, some with healthy and slightly increased circulations.
In a January 20 ...
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