RSS vs. the 24 hour news cycle

Bruce Schneier posted his response to a call for the media to pipe down about terrorist attacks. The argument goes that by publicizing terror attacks the media is creating terror, so why not short-circuit the terrorists’ goal? Mr. Schneier explains that the consequence of doing so would cause worse things than terrorism.

He also discusses the nature of the news media in general:

If the press did not report the 9/11 attacks, if most people in the U.S. didn’t know about them, then the attacks wouldn’t have been such a defining moment in our national politics. If we lived 100 years ago, and people only read newspaper articles and saw still photographs of the attacks, then people wouldn’t have had such an emotional reaction. If we lived 200 years ago and all we had to go on was the written word and oral accounts, the emotional reaction would be even less. Modern news coverage amplifies the terrorists’ actions by endlessly replaying them, with real video and sound, burning them into the psyche of every viewer. [emphasis added]

Kathy Sierra says “you can’t be afraid and rational at the same time.” She writes about how the brain deals with fear at low and high levels, and how the media sidesteps higher brain functions to appeal directly to the reptilian brain.

Unlike television shows, movies, and video games–which your brain knows aren’t real–a brain perceives the news as “real” and often concludes that things are far more dangerous than they really are, [emphasis added] thanks to the dramatic statistic imbalance (reality distortion field) between what is displayed on the news and what is actually happening outside your front door. It’s not like you’ll ever hear, for example, a nightly new run down of all the people in your city who were NOT in fact killed in a drive-by shooting that day.

Since I’m a geek, I’m constantly applying technical solutions to social problems. The social problem is that it’s unthinkable for a 24 hour news channel to announce “It’s a slow news day, so we’re taking a break for a while. Enjoy this test pattern until something happens.” Instead, they’ll latch on to whatever story they can because they need to keep people tuned into their advertisements.

The buzzword-compliant solution to this problem is RSS. Well, RSS or something like RSS. RSS provides the model, and it might even provide the format. Chris Anderson wrote about how RSS changes blog posting styles: “in a subscription age, where publishers don’t have to entice you back each day with a flood of new content, quality trumps quantity.” Why wouldn’t the same thing happen to TV?


Imagine, instead of 24 hours of television constantly streaming in there would be an RSS feed with video enclosures. Your TiVo would download the video whenever something new came in and you would know that they weren’t putting it up there to fill time or to fit a schedule.

The idea of using RSS to schedule video is not an original idea, but the implications for the 24 hour news cycle will be profound. The news media wouldn’t need to make a mountain out of a molehill on a slow news day to fill their schedule, they would simply put on a 15 minute broadcast with the important information. Or, if it was a particularly busy news day, they would do a 45 minute broadcast. The key is that the content would drive the format, not the other way around.

Of course the existing news media isn’t going to have any of it. They are perfectly happy with things the way they are, and there are significant hurdles to them changing. For instance, how do you sell a half hour’s worth of advertising when there might not be a half hour of news? And if you can go on longer, why not just go on for as long as there are advertisers paying for it? That’s what the 24 hour news channels are doing right now. On the flip side, they might be happy to throw off the shackles of program schedules; 3 hours worth of advertisers could mean 3 hours of news even if there’s only 15 minutes worth of real news.

The limiting factor could come in the form of grassroots journalism. The quality is there, compare the Ann Arbor News’ coverage of a local fire to a local blogger’s first person account. And if that blogger doesn’t have anything to say today, he won’t waste my time with fluff. If the gatekeepers insist on providing updates on nothing, the people will talk amongst themselves and let the media wonder where everyone went.

I talked before about how blogging could lead to a return to hard news. What I missed was that bloggers will also dictate the form of the media. Commercial media would never come up with RSS, perish the thought that someone might not come to their site every day to check for updates. Since most bloggers don’t have advertisers to answer to, we are able to get our information in whatever format we want. That means that in order to compete with us, the market will have to respond by giving people information in the form that they want. If they don’t, people will just subscribe to a feed of important news without the filler and without the advertisements.

Of course, like I said above, this is a technical solution to a social problem. Given the choice between just-the-facts news and OMG-the-world-is-fucked news, I suspect that ratings will favor the second.

2 thoughts on “RSS vs. the 24 hour news cycle

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