Will hanging out with the geeks improve network news? Judging from CBS News anchor Katie Couric’s comments at the Web 2.0 Expo yesterday, the potential is there.

Will it matter? In a news environment that has been irrevocably disrupted by the Internet, the role of broadcast news anchors has evolved out of necessity. Their ability to focus international awareness on the key issues of our time remains unparalleled, but the attention span and consumption habits of their audience has changed.

And so the question becomes: How will one of the nation’s most familiar faces and sources for news will adapt, adopt and become adept in the context of a news cycle that refreshes as often as a click on a Web browser? By the time Couric presents the 22 minutes of news as CBS’s anchor each evening, the Web has long since digested, analyzed and commented upon each item. There are few scoops by 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

The network evening newscasts still matter. “I’ve spent my whole career trying to ask important questions, listening, asking followup questions,” said Couric during her conversation with Tim O’Reilly. Her evening news show still receives millions of viewers every night.

The trouble is that, as Couric observed during her talk, their average age is 62. The news networks have to shift gears to be relevant in a 24/7/365 environment where young consumers watch video on demand, browse news through the recommendations and status updates of friends, and watch content on Internet-enabled mobile devices as well as glowing flat screen televisions.

The networks are responding to the challenges posed by the shift online after years of false starts. You can already see, for instance, how the PBS Newshour has shifted to a new format. The Newshour integrates updates social media and a blog posts through out the day with the traditional hour of news in the evening. A digital correspondent, Hari Sreenivasan, breaks down what’s available
online to Newhour viewers on air. Couric has joined Twitter, distributed video podcasts in iTunes, published Web-first video to CBSNews.com and launched an iPhone app. Below, Couric talks about using social media:

The New News, Digital Literacy and Filter Bubbles

Perhaps because of those efforts, Couric chose not to frame new and old media as oppositional in delivering relevant information to citizens. “New and old media can coexist and the two can add up to a richer product,” she said. “Stories bubble up. They start to incubate on the Web,” said Couric, alluding to the reality of newsrooms on using the Internet as barometer for news.

It’s in the self interest of those same networks to support a more educated citizenry with greater digital literacy. “Be an educated consumer” when buying into the media, said Couric. That extends to actively seeking and engaging with views and perspectives that do not mesh comfortably with our own, a phenomenon that Eli Pariser described at PDF earlier this year as the “filter bubble.” Living in an information bubble with like-minded people is both “limiting and dangerous to a democracy,” said Couric.

That’s one reason that the Knight Commission was created, and why the information needs of this democracy must be considered as technology continues to evolve as a means of collaborative news gathering, sharing and analysis.

Katie Couric speaking at Web 2.0 Expo NY 2010. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.

In that context, she quoted one of the sages of Washington, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who famously said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” To say that there is some dispute over different versions of reality in Washington today would be a grand understatement, given the truthiness that’s endemic to many conversations.

What she needs, along with the rest of the press corps and the citizenry they serve, are better filters for getting to the news that matters, separating signal from noise. “I’d love to find a way to better consume all the info coming my way,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a tsunami of news.”

I know the feeling. That’s why learning how to focus is crucial, and embracing selectivity alongside critical thinking are useful skills in modern life, as Clay Johnson has pointed out at InfoVegan.com. His recommendations for dealing with information overload include consuming information consciously, practicing “attention fitness,” and breathing to avoid email apnea.

As Couric and the other anchors embrace these new tools, their ability to develop those skills in order to be educated on what matters is the best bet for them to be on top of what they need to share with to the rest of world. That’s why I asked her about her own “information diet,” drawing from the fascinating profiles of media diets that the Atlantic has been posting this year.

So What Does She Read?

“I love The Economist because it gives a very unbiased, across the pond view,” said Couric. She also listed off The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today in print, and online destinations like the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and (surprise) CBSNews.com. Like me, she has “stacks of New Yorkers” in the house, along with The Atlantic.

The open question for Couric will be in whether she can leverage new media to reach new audiences and break through the information overload. Her questions to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin were unquestionably a factor in the 2008 election. The network anchors will continue to play a role in holding policy makers and presidential candidates accountable, because of their access. But the days of towering figures like Cronkite, Brinkley, Chancellor, Brokaw or Jennings letting the nation know “the way it is” are over. They are undoubtedly a major element of shaping an ever-evolving global conversation but no longer control it nor define it.

If there’s one take-away from Couric’s time at Web 2.0, it’s that we now all to some degree have a shared responsibility to get the facts right. Here’s hoping that in the service of our collective intelligence that we all do.