If news can’t find me, I’m a dolt

Six years ago, a phrase emerged that grew popular as an explanation of the demise of the journalism business:

“If the news is that important, it will find me.”

Market researcher Jane Buckingham related that quote to The New York Times in 2008, attributing it to a college student who was participating in a focus group. Those of us who make a living by being curious and methodically documenting the world have been brow-beaten with that proud intellectual passivity ever since.

At the time, the growing cottage industry of legacy-journalism jeerleaders seized on “it will find me” as original haiku for the fate of institutionally disseminated news and the rise of social media. The problem is, “it will find me” wasn’t original. It wasn’t even surprising.

As a group, college students have been notoriously self-centered since the invention of college. Young people never embraced newspapers or watched TV news. (Those of us who did were weird.)

Even the famously activist baby-boomer generation didn’t actually leave the dormitory in significant numbers until important news arrived in the form of military draft cards. That was a good reason to leave the dorm and take up signs, to be sure, but it was hardly singular enlightenment on their part. The news found them — without an Internet, even — and they paid attention because their lives were in danger.

So “it will find me” is true, but it always has been. It says nothing about the technological change that endangers the business model of professional journalism. It says a lot about how little humans have changed. Most of us are as incurious as ever, especially when we are young.

The reason this sticks in my craw six years on is because “it will find me” persists as supposedly original wisdom unique to Millennials. The quote popped up in a tweet recently. I retweeted it, with an admittedly sarcastic and untrue introduction:

This of course prompted an earnest critique.

To which, prudently, I did not reply, tempted though I was. “Actually, Sean, you’re right, it will find them — just before they get shipped off to Vietnam” did not seem likely to enlighten. Nor did, “Try seeing the world through the eyes of people who aren’t assholes.”

I wish Sean and the rest of us in this business would recognize that technology has changed, and the commerce of information has changed, but people have not. Let’s not pretend that Millennials are somehow behind a sea change in journalism. They just happen to be there. The natural tendency of young people to be self-absorbed is better served by today’s tools, that’s true. But young people are not what’s new and wise, and they surely shouldn’t get a trophy for being incurious.

If you await news that’s important enough to find “me,” you’ll never encounter or understand anything outside yourself.