The terrible, horrible, no good future of news media, according to Eric Schmidt

Last week, I blogged about some of the exciting technological advances Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, predict in their new book, The New Digital Age, which comes out on April 23. Today, I want to focus on one of their more sobering predictions -- what they see as the future of news reporting.

On a very basic level, Schmidt and Cohen just put into words what deep down we already knew: that the proliferation of technology has turned everyone into a reporter and that media organizations will only lag further and further behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook, both of which are now regularly the first to serve up important breaking news. "If everyone in the world has a data-enabled phone or access to one -- a not-so-distant reality -- then the ability to 'break news' will be left to luck and chance," the authors write.

In a hyper-connected world, the mainstream media will have to get out of the business of breaking news (with the exception of investigative reporting) since "people will have little patience or use for media that cannot keep up." To survive, the authors predict, established media organizations will "report less and validate more." With huge amounts of unverified data floating around, readers will increasingly look to these outlets to identify what is important and separate rumor from fact. Analysis and contextualization will also become increasingly valuable, as more and more stories appear in the form of disjointed 140-character vignettes.

So far so good. But Schmidt and Cohen also foresee a far more frightening prospect. In one of the more distressing passages of the book, they suggest that celebrities might one day start their own "news portals" focused on pet issues that compete head-to-head with established news media. "[L]et's call it Brangelina news," they write, with no trace of irony. "In short order, they become the ultimate source of information and news on the conflict because they are both highly visible and have built up enough credibility in their work that they can be taken seriously."

Such outfits would effectively subsidize coverage of an issue area -- be it the conflict in Darfur or the hunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony -- displacing established news outlets whose coverage is sparse, whether because of insufficient funds or lack of interest. Some of these new media outfits "will be solid attempts to contribute to public discourse," the authors write, "but many will be vapid and nearly content free, merely exercises in self-promotion and commercialized fame." (One might easily imagine other outlets that are explicitly pernicious, established solely for the purpose of obscuring the truth or countering narratives seen as detrimental to sponsors' interests.)

But Schmidt and Cohen don't think the rise of Brangelina news is cause for particular concern: "If a celebrity outlet doesn't provide enough news, or consistently makes errors that are publicly exposed, the audience will leave," they write. In this, I'm not sure they're right. Consistently bad (or fictitious reporting) from celebrity tabloids -- of which these new outfits would be a logical extension -- is clearly good for business. (People magazine is reportedly the most profitable publication in the world.)

Even news organizations that style themselves as more serious outlets appear to benefit from facts-free reporting. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, both CNN and the New York Post did remarkably well despite shoddy coverage. (CNN managed to attract one of its biggest audiences of the decade on Friday, April 19, after four days of hit-and-miss coverage that earned it a shout-out on the Daily Show.)  

I couldn't find any hard data on how traffic to the New York Post's website fared during the week, but according Google Trends, searches for "New York Post" spiked to roughly five times the typical level (it's hardly an exact proxy for web traffic, but I think it's revealing nonetheless). 

Here's the same data for CNN.

Meanwhile, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both of which did standup jobs covering the bombing, saw more modest spikes in their Google Trends data.

Of course, the Google Trends data for the Boston Globe -- which also did a solid reporting job -- blows my whole theory out of the water, but I'm going to chalk it up to people wanting to hear what the local papers had to say.

Long story short, Schmidt and Cohen paint a believable picture of where news media is headed, but I'm not sure they recognize just how destructive it all might be. Even the business model they describe for Brangelina news is one that militates against substantive coverage. ("[T]hey might not even need to compensate reporters and stringers, some of whom would work for free in exchange for the visibility.") This model will no doubt be successful -- assuming no one asks Nate Thayer to contribute -- but it's certainly not a recipe for high-quality copy.

AFP/Getty Images


Your guide to the Tsarnaev family

The hunt for the men behind the Boston Marathon bombings appears to have concluded, but the investigation into why two seemingly well-adjusted young men would carry out such a gruesome attack in their adopted hometown has only just begun.

One of the best accounts so far of what may have led the Tsarnaev brothers to violence comes courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, which describes how Tamerlan and his mother's turn to Islam created a rift within the family and particularly with Tamerlan's father, whose disapproval moved Tamerlan to leave the sport he and his father had previously cherished: boxing. If the Journal's account is accurate, it places the family dynamics of the Tsarnaev clan -- which have been playing out very much in public in recent days -- at the center of the story.

So who are the Tsarnaevs? Here's what we know so far about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar's relatives.

Anzor Tsarnaev, 47

Relationship: Father

Location: Dagestan, Russia

When fighting flared up in Chechnya in 1999, the life that Anzor Tsarnaev had built for his family in Kyrgyzstan fell apart. He lost his job in the Kyrgyz government -- probably because of his ethnicity, according to a relative -- and went to work as a mechanic, later moving his family to Dagestan and eventually to the United States -- fulfilling a longtime dream of his. It wasn't the first time the Tsarnaevs had suffered on account of their ethnicity. During the 1940s, Anzor's parents got caught up in Stalin's genocidal purges in Chechnya and deported to Kyrgyzstan.

A year ago, Anzor returned to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, after finding out he is sick -- "a bad prognosis" he says -- and he argues that his sons have been framed for crimes they did not commit: "I am watching TV and cannot believe it," he told the New York Times. When informed by ABC News that one of his sons had been captured alive, he began to cry and urged Dzhokhar to tell police everything, though he continued to maintain his son's innocence.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Anzor said that Tamerlan's 2012 visit to Dagestan -- a major element in the ongoing investigation -- mostly involved sleeping and visiting relatives, including two trips to Chechnya that they took together. "He was here, with me in Makhachkala," Anzor recalled. "He slept until 3 p.m., and you know, I would ask him: 'Have you come here to sleep?' He used to go visiting, here and there. He would go to eat somewhere. Then he would come back and go to bed."

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, 45

Relationship: Mother

Location: Dagestan, Russia

Zubeidat took courses in cosmetology when the family arrived in the United States and opened a small spa in their home. During her time in the United States, she gravitated toward Islam and began wearing a hijab, a change her husband did not approve of. "He said, 'You are being crazy, covering yourselves,'" she's explained, adding that she told Anzor, "This is what Islamic men should want. This is what I am supposed to do." Depressed by his family members' embrace of Islam and his worsening health, Anzor left his wife, though it is unclear exactly when (the Boston Herald has reported that Anzor and Zubeidat received an uncontested divorce in September 2011 from a court in Massachusetts). But the crisis seems to have brought the couple back together, at least temporarily. They sat together for an interview with the Telegraph on Monday.

With her younger son facing terrorism charges, she plans to come to the United States from Dagestan, where she currently lives, and has said that she believes her sons have been framed by the police. "They were all afraid of Tamerlan," she told ABC News, referring to the U.S. government. "They wanted to eliminate him as a threat because he was in love with Islam. For the last five years they were following him." Reuters reports that Zubeidat herself was arrested last June by police in Natick, Mass. and charged with stealing $1,624-worth of women's clothing from a Lord & Taylor store -- in a case whose outcome is unclear. 

Here she is being interviewed on RT:

Katherine Russell, 24

Relationship: Tamerlan's wife

Location: Massachusetts

Katherine, a home health care aide, has taken refuge at her parent's home in Rhode Island and has a 3-year-old daughter, Zahara, with Tamerlan. She is a convert to Islam and, until Thursday, the two lived together in Cambridge, though relatively little is known at this stage about their relationship. The two got married in 2010 at a mosque in Boston after meeting at a nightclub while Russell was a student at Suffolk University (she eventually dropped out of school). In 2009, Tamerlan was arrested on charges of domestic assault and battery against a woman described as his girlfriend -- Anzor, his father, has said the woman was his first girlfriend, not his wife. Nevertheless, Russell's friends have told ABC News that Tamerlan may have been a controlling husband.

According to ABC, Russell found out about her husband's alleged crimes just like everyone else -- via television. In recent days Katherine's family has projected a sense of shock and issued a statement distancing their daughter from her deceased husband. "In the aftermath of the Patriots' Day horror we know that we never really knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev," they said. "Our hearts are sickened by the knowledge of the horror he has inflicted."

Ruslan Tsarni, 42

Relationship: Uncle

Location: Maryland

Ruslan, Anzor's brother, burst onto the scene last week when he was asked by reporters why his nephews might have carried out the attacks: "Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves; those are the only reasons," he said. "Anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it's a fraud; it's a fake." Ruslan added that he felt the two young men had brought shame to Chechens in the United States and that their decision to turn to violence was primarily rooted in their failure to integrate into U.S. society. He says that he last saw the boys in December 2005, and there appears to have been some kind of falling out between the two branches of the family. Anzor explained his brother's description of his sons as "losers" by referencing a family feud. (Alvi Tsarni, another uncle living in Maryland, has been less outspoken than Ruslan but has expressed disbelief and informed the press that Tamerlan called him to seek forgiveness shortly before his death.)

On Sunday, Ruslan retreated somewhat from his earlier statements and told the New York Times that he had first noticed a change in Tamerlan in 2009 and had become concerned about his increasingly extreme views of Islam. According to a family friend whom Ruslan consulted, Tamerlan's radicalization began after he met a Boston-area convert in 2007.

Here he is addressing the media last week:

Maret Tsarnaeva, 45

Relationship: Aunt

Location: Toronto, Canada

Maret moved to Canada in 1997, now lives in Toronto, and, like her relatives, maintains that her two nephews are innocent. But she has offered interesting commentary on the family's identity as it hopscotched from one country to another in search of a home: "It was hard because you realize that you used to be somebody there, but here, you're a nobody," she told the Journal. "As Chechens, we always had to work hard to prove ourselves, no matter where we were." While in Canada, Maret helped her brother Anzor move his family to the United States, assisting with much of the paperwork. She has gently pushed back against Ruslan's assertion that the two boys were losers, telling the Toronto Sun that "I listened to him and I felt like ... he was still expecting a lot from Tamerlan."

Patimat Suleimanova

Relationship: Aunt

Location: Makhachkala, Dagestan

Patimat -- the wife of Anzor's older brother -- hosted Tamerlan during his trip to Dagestan and has described his interest in Islam as fairly casual. "He was curious about religion," she told RT. "He started to be really interested in Islam about three years ago, but he was never a radical. We would talk about his commitment to religion, but it wasn't extreme." Tamerlan, she continued, "knew that heaven was at the mother's feet, and he would tell that to his sisters."

Ailina Tsarnaeva, 22

Relationship: Sister

Location: New Jersey

Ailina has kept a low profile since the revelations of her brothers' alleged involvement in the Boston attacks. In an interview with a New Jersey television station from behind a closed door, she expressed remorse for the victims of the attacks. "I'm sorry for the families that lost their loved ones the same way I lost my loved one," she said. Ailina lives in West New York, N.J., with her husband and children. She had a falling out with her family over marrying a non-Muslim man.

Bella Tsarnaeva

Relationship: Sister

Location: New Jersey

Very little is known about Bella. She currently lives in Fairview, N.J., and her older brother has been described as being quite protective of her. Luis Vasquez, who attended high school with Tamerlan and helped coach Dzhokhar's high school soccer team, told the Associated Press that Tamerlan tried to fill his father's shoes when Anzor left the home. "He was very protective of his (younger) sister, Bella," Vasquez told the AP, adding in an interview with Reuters that Bella "wanted to partake fully in our American society." It was Bella who called her mother to inform her that Tamerlan had been killed in a violent confrontation with police last week.

Glenn DePriest/Getty Images