Skip to main content

There's no chance they'll see this, so may as well talk about them.

They live in the West. They are young, educated, smart, busy with family and work. They may or may not be relatives.

For an admitted news junkie, however, the visit was a bit of a shock. They get no newspaper. They have television, but not cable and watch only streamed programs that carry no commercials and, more importantly, no trailer alerts to warn you that the world has just gone to hell in a handbasket. They get their weather on their mobile phones. They are highly informed in the areas that interest them – parenting, recreation, neighbourhood, city – but are not plugged in to what the rest of us refer to as "the news."

Just imagine what they have been missing: mass beheadings, video of a human being burned alive, "lone-wolf" attacks, foiled mass-murder plots, bombed-out buildings, lost children, measles outbreaks, gang shootings, racial fights, missing-women vigils, sexual assaults on campus, drunken sailors, new cases of Ebola and – This just in! – a plan by Islamic State terrorists to take over Libya and use it as a "gateway" to invade Europe …

Maybe, just maybe, these people are on to something.

The evidence is purely anecdotal but easily gathered by anyone asking family, friends and total strangers if their news habits are changing. Those of us addicted to our morning papers and evening news will say it just isn't so, but there are a lot of people out there who are tweaking Timothy Leary's old line and "Turning away, Tuning elsewhere and Dropping out" – at least as far as keeping up with the hourly news cycle goes.

On Facebook, you will find support for a "Turn Off the News Day" – "a full 24 hours without your blood pressure skyrocketing" – but there is also considerable digital applause for turning off the news forever.

According to the lobby group the Internet Association, online streaming video rose 175 per cent between 2010 and 2013 – and continues to rise each month. Yet Netflix and similar services are only partly to blame for the shrinking television viewership. In the United States, television viewership declined by a stunning 12 per cent in January compared with the same month a year ago. According to ratings firm Nielsen, it marked the eighth consecutive double-digit drop.

While most networks showed significant losses, analysts found "modest" growth at HGTV, where "bad news" amounts to the renovator finding mould behind the drywall he just ripped out.

The situation in newspapers is well known. Newspapers vanish regularly in North America. In Britain, likely the world's most intense newspaper market, the latest figures show the market is declining at a rate of 8 per cent a year. The Sunday newspaper market, long the most competitive, is declining even faster.

One website,, has a widely circulated essay by founder Joel Gascoigne in which he argues the many benefits of killing the television and not even glancing online at any newspaper.

His reasoning is that almost all news is impossibly negative. He claims the ratio of bad news to good is 17:1 – it may well have been this past winter – and that 95-per-cent negative is out of sync with the real world, which he says is not remotely as dark as advertised.

There is another argument that news is "toxic," that panicky stories such as the upcoming invasion of Europe by religious extremists causes the release of various chemicals that wreck the immune system.

Curious about this possible "trend," I canvassed three teachers who specialize in media – Christopher Dornan, supervisor of graduate studies at Carleton University's school of journalism, Tim Falconer, a journalism instructor at Toronto's Ryerson University, and Michael Gange, who teaches media to high school students in Fredericton.

"It's becoming all the more common," Prof. Dornan believes. "Smart, educated folks in their late 20s or early 30s who are so unplugged from the legacy media they have never heard of a story that consumed the airwaves and newspaper front pages."

Do not confuse older generations tuning out with younger generations who never tuned in in the first place, Prof. Dornan cautions: "They may just be slightly ahead of the times – a harbinger of the immediate future, where the citizens of the present have little use for or interest in what they see as media from a previous century."

If the media aren't "interactive," he says, young consumers usually aren't interested. In a straw poll conducted by Mr. Gange in Fredericton, 24 of the 29 students in his Grade 12 class said they had two kinds of Internet access, allowing them to watch something on their laptop while texting or surfing on their cellphones.

Mr. Falconer says the temptation is to say "ignorance is bliss," but that would be too simplistic. In his opinion, "No one under 50 reads hard-copy newspapers, but a lot of them watch shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show and you have to know the news to get the jokes."

When Mr. Gange asked his students about Brian Williams – the NBC anchor caught in a web of lies this month – none of them knew of him, but all knew Jon Stewart, host of the satirical Daily Show.

Mr. Falconer concedes that there are many people of all ages out there who've "unplugged." It is reflected in downward voting patterns as well as audience. While older readers and viewers might be dropping out because of an overload of negativity, younger consumers often reason that if something is important for them to know, their social media connections will get that information to them.

"They often know a great deal about 'entertainment news,'" says Mr. Falconer. "They'll know all about Bill Cosby – but whether you can really call that 'news' or not I don't know."

Montreal's Craig Silverman, whose website,, tracks and often corrects rumours, thinks it's almost impossible to escape news today. "However," he says, "it's easy to stop the kind of ritual-based news consumption that characterized life for such a long time." Young consumers, he says, simply dip in and out of news and take it in smaller bits.

As for older consumers who have unplugged, that's their decision to make. But the unfortunate thing about bad news is that, just because you ignore it, it doesn't go away.