I tweeted this this morning…

The problem isn’t coverage of the Koran-burning idiot; it is that we are not yet used to a world in which there is too much journalism.

…and got a little push-back, including this from a former student…

such a thing as too much journalism? that doesn’t sound right coming from you, Mark

Here’s what I meant.

The breast-beating over the coverage of that idiot who’s threatening to torch copies of the Koran struck me as a little overwrought. It’s as though a whole bunch of people forgot that what we do in journalism is go see what’s happening in the world and then report back. We can debate forever the value of much of what is reported, but it’s the second part of my tweet I’m most interested on exploring here: too much journalism.

Was a time when only those in the biggest cities enjoyed a surplus of media. For many of us, our window on the world was the local paper, augmented (maybe) by a regional or national title, and whatever combination of national and local TV and radio was available. Newspapers (the medium I know best) took seriously their responsibility to bring us the local, the regional, the national, the international, mixing bits and pieces of everything. Every newspaper in every market did the same, but only the clipping services, newspaper chain offices and contest judges noticed that, local aside, every paper was doing the same thing. Piling on a story — whether it’s some kid in a weather balloon or an idiot with a match — happened, but, like WIlliam Gibson’s famous remark on the future, was “unevenly distributed.”

That age is gone, of course. In its place, we have access to all of those publications and all of that news, and in many more places than just those publications. And we have the death of the portal (Facebook, perhaps, aside). The result is that we no longer have a window or two on the world: the internet has pretty much knocked down the whole wall. Everything from everywhere comes pouring through.

We readers have the easy part here: turn on the tap and wade in.

Getting used to a world with too much journalism, by which I mean a world in which all of the journalism is more or less available, is much harder for newspapers and other media. They’re behaving as though journalism and information is still scarce, and in many cases they need to in order to serve a diminishing but still present traditional audience. It seems to me that it’s inevitable there will be times when too many journalistic assets, ranging from the boots on the ground to the number of column inches, seem too much devoted to matters of too little importance.

(Can we agree that it is important to cover the fringes, not only because the fringes sometimes move to the centre, but also because issues raised by the actions of those on the fringes — in this case freedom of expression, concepts of tolerance and more — are ones we need to continually address? The issue of how proportional the coverage of the odd, the weird, the fringe is another issue.)

This is where we appear to be now: newspapers can’t, for much longer, be what they used to be but have not yet figured out what they need to be, where they will fit, in a world that much of the audience already inhabits.