CORAL GABLES, Fla. — To experience Miami-Dade County in all its beautiful and messy glory, let the Instagram account Only in Dade be your guide.
Then the conversation turned to something much more serious: Police that week confirmed that the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department had attempted suicide, and a tipster supposedly had a video related to the emerging story.
“What do you guys think?” asked Lenny Carter, co-CEO of Only in Dade. “Should we get into this?”
“I think it’s too soon,” said Shanut Anaut, Only in Dade’s co-founder.
“It’s just a rumor at this point,” Carter concluded, after listening to the staff talk it through. Then he turned to one of the Instagram account’s managers, Jennifer Jensen. “Get the footage anyway, Jenny. But I say no.” In the end, the skepticism was warranted; the video wasn’t clear.
“They start as a joke account for people to make fun of or rant about things that frustrated them, or they’re bored and want to have fun,” said Nikki Usher, a University of San Diego media professor and researcher of social media and journalism. “And then they accidentally start to get credibility because they’re so authentic.”
They’re arising as newspapers disappear, television ratings decline and younger audiences tune out the news. And they’re cause for still more hand-wringing among journalism purists, and those griping about “bundles” — serious news organizations offering lighter fare such as games alongside news reports to lure an audience. What does it mean if reporting isn’t enough, that you also have to entertain?
But consider what newspapers used to be. They weren’t produced by professionals as we think of them today. Early American newspapers were mostly filled with dispatches sent by letter writers — the original “user-submitted content.” Postmasters who ran their own papers had a competitive advantage, because they had access to so many people’s letters; some would just print the contents.
It took a long time to get to the kind of sober, straight-down-the-middle media that came to dominate the 20th-century news market, produced by professionals and delivered in the voices of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and other people who were almost invariably White and male.
But for centuries before all that, news wasn’t as polite, or as dull. Papers were hyperpartisan before publishers realized they could make more money by practicing “objectivity.” News included lighter fare, gossip or even made-up stories. (After all, people were paying to be entertained.) The platonic ideal of a newspaper (or news outlet) never existed. “Most journalism historians will say you can’t have this unbroken line of evolution up to the present. Instead, you have periods in the past where journalism of the period was distinctive for that period,” said David Sloan, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama and founder of the American Journalism Historians Association. Whatever upheaval society underwent — cultural, political, industrial — was reflected back in its news.