The Economist, Coffee Houses, and The Past (and Future) of News

The Economist has a new Special Report this week on the future of news, starting with a lead piece, “Back to the coffee house.” Not only does this have one of my favorite Economist images of recent memory (see above: ThouTube, Visagebook, ha!), but the special report as a whole makes for some very good reading.

It’s an interesting time of back-to-the-future for the news. Three hundred years ago, news and the flow of information existed primarily in a word-of-mouth, social gathering/coffee house sort of way. Then, the advent of newspapers, radio, and television fundamentally changed the character of that flow of news information, it “turned news from a two-way conversation into a one-way broadcast.” And now, the wide-ranging changes which the internet has brought about in how people find, get, and disseminate information is creating another change, or perhaps a re-change:

“the news industry is returning to something closer to the coffee house. The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

More sources of news information, with more of a two-way form of participation between news producer and news consumer, is certainly not a bad thing: “A more participatory and social news environment, with a remarkable diversity and range of news sources, is a good thing.” Of course, good things also carry costs. Among such costs are the questions of what happens to accountability journalism (which, as a value in theory is an important thing, but as the Economist notes, in practice can be something else: “But old-style journalism was never quite as morally upstanding as journalists like to think”) and partisanship in the brave new news world.

If anything, the burden of standards and quality seems to be shifting more and more towards the readers and consumers. The freedom to choose so many sources of news information also carries with it a certain burden of responsibility for each individual on how and why they consume their news. The return of the coffee house suggested in the headline means essentially a changed perception of how we may relate to news — not as passive consumers of news, but as engaged participants: “What is to be done? At a societal level, not much. The transformation of the news business is unstoppable, and attempts to reverse it are doomed to failure. But there are steps individuals can take to mitigate these worries.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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