The Speed of Media in 2019

Well, it’s Friday afternoon in Virginia, and at this time last week, things were a little bumpy but no one saw the cascade of news events ahead. Without discussing the details of the events, let’s look at the interplay between the news media and the subjects of the news, and then the ecosystem around them. Why?

Because news has fundamentally accelerated. If there was a scandal with the governor of any kind 10 years ago, it might have “broken” online but most people would not be aware of it until it was in the morning paper, and that might have a pretty big reach but very few official comments would be filed. If it had been 20 years ago, it would have definitely waiting for the Saturday morning paper and maybe the nightly news, stretching into Monday as reporters and editors waited for confirmation during business hours. 50 years ago, who knows?

The fact is, by Monday of this week, we’d had reactions to reactions, and a deluge of responses that called for action. The news went from breaking Friday late in the day, to calls for resignation by 9 p.m. Saturday morning there was additional news that was confusing. A minority of people suggested waiting to see, but rather than thorough research and confirmed facts, rumors flew through cyberspace. The press conference was live streamed, and scheduled on a Saturday because responding was urgent. Reports from the press conference begat tweets immediately.

With news alerts to our phones, we glean just the barest information — what the headline said, and no more (and maybe not even that if we didn’t read it right.) Many more people get their news not from a primary source, but from a secondary or tertiary source. Part of this is that all the pinging of our phones happens while we are doing other things. Few people tune in for the live stream unless they are very interested, and fewer stay for the whole thing. Conversations online show these gaps in information as people check their news or absorb information at different rates — some people know that other news has hit, while a few are just learning about the first piece.

I am definitively not commenting on the content of Virginia’s week in the spotlight, but I need to say that observing it as a journalist has fascinating. Rather than beat reporters following up with their sources, like they do every day or week, I saw the descent of TV news crews to the Capitol or the front door of the Attorney General’s office. Totally reasonable, but a different style of news gathering all together — the press gaggle pounces on whoever emerges. The response of the subjects is also disheartening, in which they don’t seem to understand the context of the media, who represents the public’s interests. The intensity of the pressure seems to lead to some strange off-the-cuff choices which is not great communication because we don’t know what it really means when it’s done thoughtlessly.

So one week later, we’ve had two press conferences, multiple press release statements, a few press gaggle interviews and a ton of bizarre revelations, conjecture, reactions, positioning and tweets. Is this the new media age, where a week feels like a year? Are we better off for it?