The 1% of news that matters

I first heard about the earthquake in Japan from a cab driver in Milwaukee. By the time I got to the airport, it was all over the monitors. And by the time I could find a Wi-Fi connection, the first details were just starting to emerge.

Our society digests news differently now. Electronic media paints news in broad strokes. Digital media offers a never-ending deep dive into the details. In the few days since disaster struck, the web has already built up a vast repository of information about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The web stretches infinitely to accommodate new content, stretching its digital boundaries as required. The shelf life of broadcast news is much shorter. Time constrains the content. Detail has to be sacrificed for impact.

But on the web, news is also a participatory experience. News isn’t a broadcast, it’s a conversation, guided by editors and journalists but often veering in unexpected directions as our collective voice hits its stride. We shape the coverage by voicing our opinions, our concerns and, for those who are in the middle of the news, our experiences. The world is smaller, rawer, more visceral, more vital and, hopefully, more human.

In the convergence of these two shifts in how we digest what happens in the world, there lies something impactful. Traditionally, because news was a shifting canvas where yesterday’s events quickly faded to make room for today’s, we had no choice but to move on to the next story. But now, thanks to the Web, the content remains, if we choose to seek it out. While Japan’s pain is still horribly fresh, more than a year later the traumatic story of Haiti is still unwinding online.

The fact is that 99% of the news you hear nightly won’t really make much of a difference in your life in 5 years. They’re stories of passing interest, but in the big scheme of things, they’re rather inconsequential. And the things that will make a difference seldom make the news. But, on the web, the time limitation of being “new” doesn’t artificially constrain what is news. For those who continue to care about Haiti, the information is there, living on in indelible binary bits.

It’s this concept of “caring” about news that is served so well online. Humans tend to react to our surroundings in two distinct ways. We react to the immediate and awesome (in both it’s negative and positive connotations) simply because we’re wired to notice dramatic and potentially harmful events in our environment. But, if it has no personal impact, we move on with our lives. We’re like a herd of sheep that goes back to it’s collective grazing after a loud noise startles us in our pasture. For this fleeting level of engagement, broadcast news works exceedingly well. It’s been designed to impact us at this transitory level, hammering us for maximum effect by a parade of violence, negativity and trauma.

But for the 1% of stories that do affect us, that will matter to us in a very personal way in 5 years, the 30-second sound bite is simply not enough. If news can affect our well being, the second level of human engagement kicks in. Now, we are hungry for information. We need to dive deep into the details, so we can understand what the personal impact might be.

Consider the difference in how I would react to the news coming out of Japan if, rather than observing it at arm’s length as I did, I had a child who was teaching English as a second language in Sendai, the epicenter of the quake. Think about how I would voraciously devour any information I could find online, trying to determine if my child was safe.

For the 1% of news that does matter to us, online provides us something we never had before. It takes the temporal and archives it at a scale never before possible. Individual slivers of history are frozen in a digital record. It allows us to connect to information that is personally relevant, even long after it qualifies as “news.”

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider Mar 17. 2011