What Good Is the News?

How to approach a never-ending torrent of information

George Dillard


Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Charlie Warzel had a typically insightful piece in The Atlantic the other day, in which he argued that journalists’ complaints about the role of social media in distributing the news may be misplaced. Sure, Facebook and Twitter have had a negative impact on the news business, but…

It’s not just the platforms: Readers are breaking up with traditional news, too.

Last week, the Pew Research Center published a new study showing that fewer adults on average said they regularly followed the news in 2021 or 2022 than in any other year surveyed. (Pew started asking the question in 2016.) There’s some shakiness when you break down the demographics, but overall, 38 percent of American adults are following the news closely, versus a high of 52 percent in 2018. This tracks: In 2022, Axios compiled data from different web-traffic-monitoring companies that showed news consumption took a “nosedive” after 2020 and, despite January 6, the war in Ukraine, and other major events, engagement across all news media — news sites, news apps, cable news, and social media — was in decline.

So maybe the issue isn’t that social media is keeping people from discovering the news. Maybe the issue is that fewer Americans are interested in following the news in the first place.

As we head into another presidential election cycle, this raises a crucial question — why, and how, should we follow the news?

What is the news, anyway? The term dates back to the 1300s. The word literally means what it looks like — a plural version of “new,” the new stuff, the new information.

The practice of exchanging new information existed before the word “news” emerged in the 14th century, obviously. People have been exchanging reports and rumors since time immemorial. For a long time, distributing the news was the job of governments. By the Renaissance, businesspeople had begun to compile and distribute accounts of important events to help them make investment decisions. In the 1600s and 1700s, the first real, independent journalists began to print newspapers for public consumption.

For much of history, the news wasn’t all that new. Many early newspapers were published…