www.herald-journal.com
A sign of the times
Jan. 10, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

Our society’s sad descent into vacuousness continued last month.

It has been clear for some time that an increasing number of citizens would rather be entertained than informed.

Further evidence of this trend was provided in December when the movie rental service Netflix pushed the venerable New York Times from the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of publicly traded companies.

A story by Claire Atkinson in the New York Post explained how the Times, with a net worth of $1.4 billion, was bounced by the $10.2 billion entertainment company.

Netflix stocks gained value, while stocks in the New York Times fell.

There is nothing unusual about the S&P index changing. Companies come and go, with about 30 revisions to the list each year taking place without raising public comment.

The Times/Netflix swap, however, seems symbolic in that it reflects a change in the appetite of the American public. Society seems to be shifting from information-driven to entertainment-driven.

The times are still a-changing.

When I was a lad, my old man read two newspapers cover-to-cover every day.

He read the Duluth News Tribune in the morning before he left for work, and he read the afternoon paper, the Duluth Herald, when he got home in the evening.

That was a lot of news to get through, and yet he supplemented that by listening to news radio in between.

Like many other publications across the country, those two papers later merged into a single newspaper.

Community newspapers, due perhaps to an intense commitment to local people and events, still enjoy strong readership, but many of the large daily papers have suffered in recent years.

Part of this is due to the variety of new ways people can get news these days, using technology that would have seemed like science fiction to my dad.

In addition to newspapers, radio, and TV, people today get their news from their computers and even from their phones.

There is more competition, it is true, but the depth of information some people want has also changed.

My old man read those papers in their entirety because he wanted to know the whole story so he would know what was going on, and would be prepared to intelligently discuss the events of the day and make good decisions.

Today, however, the news is often condensed to a collection of sound bites, tweets, and brief blog posts.

A lot of people seem to want just the headlines, with no depth or analysis.

They want news as a form of entertainment, rather than as a way to stay informed.

Some of the things that pass for news these days are lodged firmly in the category of fluff or amusement, and have little or no news value.

I try to limit my exposure to television news programs, because they depress me, not just because the stories are negative, but because so much attention is devoted to stories of no practical value.

Titillating they may be, but news they are not.

I suppose we have always had a certain fascination for the odd or the scandalous, but it seems we have added new layers of superficial nonsense to our diet.

I am not surprised that Net-flix is doing as well as it is. I am not yet among the 17 million subscribers to the service, but I understand its appeal.

When I was young, we had three major commercial networks and one public television channel to choose from.

Sometimes, there was nothing on that I wanted to watch.

Recently, to pass the time after a pleasant Christmas dinner, some friends and I flipped through dozens of cable channels. There still wasn’t anything on we wanted to watch.

I guess that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

At least with Netflix, one can choose from an extensive list of things one might actually want to see.

I am afraid though, that the Netflix juggernaut and similar companies will continue to push icons like the New York Times aside, and the line between information and entertainment will become increasingly blurry.


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