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ON A typical day in 1898, the Times of London led with its usual front page of advertisements; it then carried a page reviewing some recent novels; and then acres of coverage of the Balkan war. Altogether, the newspaper had nineteen columns of foreign news, eight columns of domestic news and three about salmon fishing. Exactly fifty years later, the front page still carried advertisements and the leaders commented on Italy, Canada, China and the crisis in Western civilisation (no change there, then). By 1998, the advertisements on the front page had been replaced by articles. There were six of them and only one was foreign; it was about Leonardo DiCaprio’s new girlfriend.

Here then is a modern paradox: that in this age of globalisation, news is much more parochial than in the days when communications from abroad ticked slowly across the world by telegraph. And here is another: that in this information age, the newspapers which used to be full of politics and economics are thick with stars and sport.

Competition has shaped the modern Times. Unfair competition, according to some; Britain’s Office of Fair Trading said on July 2nd that it would look into the paper’s aggressive pricing policies. Whatever the outcome of that inquiry, Britain’s bitterly contested newspaper market, where Rupert Murdoch bust the unions in the early 1980s, has already shown where competition leads. The same goes for television, in America and elsewhere. News is moving away from foreign affairs towards domestic concerns; away from politics towards human-interest stories; away from issues to people (see
article) .

To many this seems unambiguously a change for the worse—a dumbing down that panders to inanity, prurience and prejudice. If so, it would not be enough merely to retort that readers and viewers like it that way. The news is not a product like any other. People learn about how they are governed from what they read in the newspapers and what they see on the television news. Unless voters know something about how they are governed, they cannot have an intelligent opinion about it. And without intelligent opinions about government, you cannot have a healthy democracy.

Lightweight and easy to use

Any politician who felt that the news was indeed being dumbed down would have a mighty hard time doing anything about it. When countries had one, or two, or three television networks, then governments could, in a polite sort of way, instruct them to carry lots of very serious reports about the opening of a power station. But as television networks proliferate, people can choose what to watch. Regulated networks tend to bore viewers. And there are some subjects which, however central to the workings of democracy, people will not pay attention to: it takes a lot, for instance, to make the British care about anything to do with Brussels. However, before democrats despair—or advocate draconian measures to restore the news to its educative role—it is worth asking whether the dumbing down is really as dumb as it appears.

For a start, the golden age of news was not all it is cracked up to be. On August 16th 1977, for example, CBS led its bulletin with six minutes on the Panama Canal treaty. A hell of a story, to be sure—but that was the day Elvis Presley died. Remember too that politicians and journalists who bemoan the fall in standards have an interest. Politicians bore people, and the less the news is controlled by the state, the less politicians can get their faces on television. For their part, journalists, like all producer lobbies, are full of nostalgia: people whose heroes were the grand political columnists of yore dread being sent to cover “personalities”.

For those who really want it, specialist information is more available than ever before, thanks to the falling costs of publishing and broadcasting information. Foreign newspapers are sold on the platforms of rural stations. Serious magazines and newsletters exhaustively analyse domestic politics. A universe of news and comment is available on the Internet.

The worry, you might argue, is not that news junkies are no longer catered to, but that the unaddicted cannot rely on mainstream papers and programmes for basic information. Yet even the casual majority is better served by today’s editors than you might think. One shift in the nature of news, for example, is away from stories about governments and bureaucrats and towards companies and how they affect people—through food, health, the environment. In that, the news is following society as much as leading it: as the role of the state shrinks, so the private sector matters more.

The lack of foreign news is a measure of world peace as well as of rich-world insularity. Compared with the momentous collapse of communism or the drama of the Gulf war, the world is a relatively quiet place these days. In Britain, at least, the decline in coverage of foreign news does not seem to have had much effect on people’s general knowledge. According to a poll carried out for The Economist (see article), they are, if anything, more clued up about the world than they were 20 years ago. Column inches and air time are poor measures of influence. People absorb what interests them: if news is too worthy, it goes in one ear and out the other.

At the same time, a new category of news is supplanting political issues: what Americans call “news you can use”—stories telling people about how to get hold of new cancer drugs, or how to determine whether their child’s school is performing well. The focus may be narrow, but the effect is not trivial: telling people how to influence their local school or hospital is useful and gives them real political power.

What of the dramas that take over the news from time to time—stories like O.J., the Louise Woodward case, and so on? Those, surely, are pushing at the frontiers of pointlessness? By no means. Behind them, quite often, is a big issue. The trial of O.J. Simpson was not just about a celebrity accused of murder, but also about race relations in America. Louise Woodward was not just a girl who killed a baby, she also represented a real dilemma for mothers who go out to work.

If Mr DiCaprio makes you despair at breakfast, remember that “dumb” is not necessarily stupid, and news that entertains may also be news that informs. And if all else fails, we need hardly add, there’s always The Economist.