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Accidental News

Lately Americans have been gathering their news from some unconventional sources.


What Schwarzenegger gets is that our ways are changing. It used to be that we learned what was going on in the world by setting aside time to read the newspaper each morning, perhaps listening to snippets of radio newscasts in the car on the way to and from work, then watching one of the evening newscasts. And maybe — if we were bored by what was on the major talk-entertainment shows at bedtime — we’d tune in to “Nightline” and see what had Ted Koppel’s knickers in a knot.

But for many of us, that’s not the way it works anymore.

We get the news now in ways that take less time. We sign up for CNN e-mail alerts or cell-phone text messages. We sneak a quick glance at MSNBC’s Web site while we’re supposed to be laboring over that spreadsheet. A co-worker fires off an instant message to warn us that a major thunderstorm is headed our way. We catch references to the day’s headlines during Leno’s or Letterman’s opening monologue. And don’t dismiss Jon Stewart: His send-ups and spoofs of the news remind us that there is some reality that sparks the humor.

It almost seems that we’re getting our news today by accident.

For example, how did you first hear about the recent Northeast power blackout? I learned about it in a “breaking news” e-mail alert from a local TV station. How did you first hear about the 9/11 attacks? I was doing three things at once — cooking breakfast and scrolling through messages on one of my favorite Internet discussion groups when a change in the tone of Katie Couric’s voice on the television two rooms away made me wander into the living room to see what was going on.

Fewer and fewer of us are making appointments with the news. We don’t have the time, and much of what’s in the papers or on the evening newscasts seems increasingly irrelevant, especially considering everything else we have to get done. We’re working longer, playing harder and, yes, multitasking to such an extent that there’s just no time to get seriously involved with what the newsies tell us we definitely, absolutely, positively ought to know. They’ve cried wolf once too often with those heart-stopping teasers before commercial breaks.

It’s not that we care less. It’s that we’re just too busy, too short of time, to be suckered into watching a half-hour newscast that is — once you get past the first couple of minutes — too often merely infotainment about new medical “breakthroughs,” feel-good stories about kids or puppies, and breathless reports about fires or street violence that really don’t affect the dozens of critical decisions we make every day about how we’re going to live our lives.

Are we burned out on the news? A recent report in The New York Times suggests we may be getting that way. Viewership of the broadcast networks’ evening news was lower this summer than in summers past, and cable news audiences have shrunk overall compared with a year ago.

The way we get our news is changing with the times, but this is neither good nor bad. It’s just different. Television will catch up with those changes or die trying. Print journalism will adapt in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. And the Internet will play even more of a role in how we find out what’s going on.

Meantime, scoff at “Aahnold” if you like. But on Aug. 6, on “The Tonight Show,” he demonstrated a lot of savvy. S

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