Facts then and now — and why the news is still a serious matter
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Last month, during a weak moment, I agreed to speak at a local business luncheon on the topic, “What is News?”
I should have bolted. Escaping would have been easier to explain.
However, as I prepped for my speech, I found it to be an almost cathartic process. As a reporter and editor for 40 years, I’ve been in the enviable position of determining what is news, using my training, experience and judgment — and the help of a lot of good journalists — to do my job. That has been an awesome adventure, but one fraught with responsibility. I take nothing for granted. And I’m still learning.
Objectivity is the goal, of course, but that’s all it is. News is produced by humans for humans and the process is all too subject to humanity.
I’ve been trying to judge what is and is not news since the mid-1960s when I was a scribe for my Cub Scout den, submitting items to the Edwardsville Intelligencer. They were published with my byline, and from that point I was hooked.
That’s a true story – nothing fake there. But it’s a little anecdote worth pursuing in explaining the topic.
You see, back in the ’60s, before the maturity of TV news, and long before the invention of modern journalism, newspapers were the measure of everything happening. They told us what was going on – from world wars to the neighborhood. Aunt Edna drove from Edwardsville to Shreveport to visit cousins? The newspaper had that little nugget in a column.
To understand news, you have to understand people. In the same way that someone had an interest in Aunt Edna, somebody else had interest in what was going on in Vietnam, or with the St. Louis Cardinals, or with the troubles of Illinois government (yes, even then). Or, an interest in the obits, the funnies, the recipes or the TV guide.
The situation is no different today, but now you have an endless array of “news” and sources from which to choose – among them the newspaper, TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and … the next-door neighbor.
News is different to everybody. No one’s definition is the same. Still, the masses follow it, though frequently scoffing at its legitimacy.
So, what is it? Among other things, news is factual, informational, educational, inspirational and entertaining. And it should be timely and well-written or presented.
An item is not always news just because somebody says it is (a politician, another media outlet, the rumor mill). And sometimes a story ends up in the discard pile for one of several practical reasons. There is nobody to do the story. There is no time or space (unless it’s digital, all kinds of room), another paper beats you, an editor kills it, you can’t prove it, etc.
That last point hasn’t stopped many stories from getting published, as we all know, which has led to this whole generational, “fake news” thing.
Of course, those who know journalism history know that fake news is not even an original concept. William Randolph Hearst was accused of yellow journalism — sensationalizing stories — more than 120 years ago. Journalists have been suffering the lives of shyster car salesmen ever since.
Because most news outlets are for-profit businesses, there is a 100 percent tendency to do stories that sell. And, because most news outlets have been tightened due to budgeting, there are often fewer people to do a story — and fewer to check the accuracy.
News, by definition, is not old. It’s new. And it doesn’t matter if it happened a day ago, a week ago or a year ago, if you’re hearing about it for the first time it’s news. However, the fresher, the better.
Most of us look at news as a personal thing, something that helps fill a void. And while it’s a valuable commodity on one hand, it’s also basically a distraction that takes time to enjoy. Our lack of time, our lack of trust, and the sheer abundance of news makes it less of a priority with many people.
There are many circumstances that conspire against the process, but the professionals who produce the news take our jobs very seriously and we delight in getting the job done right. That may not be news, but it is the truth.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 977-6865.