by Jack Fuller
University of Chicago Press, 2010, 224 pp., $25
It may seem a bit overwrought to begin an essay on the media with a parody of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, but truth requires it. For a specter is haunting the press, the specter of the digital revolution. The digital revolution has already had social and political consequences arguably as significant as the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. How will the media and the professional of journalism itself adapt to the new world into which applied science has shoved them? More important, how will the institution of representative democracy, which is premised on the existence of intermediaries between citizens and political elites, deal or coexist with the prospect of a de facto direct democracy, in which consumers of information are also simultaneously uncontrolled and unmediated producers of it?
Jack Fuller’s book, What is Happening to News, aims to answer these questions. Fuller, who has worked in print media for more than forty years, takes as his examples those that have come directly from his experience as editor, then publisher, of the Chicago Tribune. In 13 chapters, Fuller leads the reader from the old news order to the world of the digital revolution, using the most recent discoveries in neuroscience to explain why the human brain is perfectly shaped to exploit the basic features of the new media: the preference for negative information, the bias to see the world in binary terms of “us” and “them”, the emotional bonds one forms with celebrities, the tendency to keep recent news in mind and crowd out old information.
But if neuroscience explains much, Fuller is also perfectly aware that it does not answer the key question of whether journalists should surrender to the trend, or fight against it. Fuller recommends that journalists adopt approaches that have been successfully applied in other fields of knowledge like film, music and video. He would have journalists fight, but fight smart. In the end, he leaves it to future generations of journalists to discover new rules of the game and apply them to the profession.
One of Fuller’s recommendations for attracting and keeping the public’s attention is to let go of the dry, objective, disembodied analysis that was one of the principles of the Standard Model of Professional Journalism, invented and consolidated in the 1960s. He suggests that writers begin writing in the first person, conducive to a more emotional approach. So I will yield to that temptation, even if I must confess that 36 years spent in various positions on the editorial...