newstainment /nyuz’təɪnmənt/

Among the many millions of events that happened in 1980, two took place that lead to the appearance of today’s word; newstainment. The first was the launch of Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, known as CNN, the first 24-hour news station. Prior to that, news shows were scheduled at intervals within regular daily TV shows.

The second took place in the one-time steel town of Sheffield in the UK, at a joint conference between the Institute of Information Scientists and the Library Association, referred to as ASLIP. Here, a group of information scientists put on a comedy show under the sobriquet of The Infotainers, who presented skits using “infotainment,” a portmanteau word culled from “information” and “entertainment.”

The challenge for the scientists was to fill an hour with fun and levity; the challenge for CNN was to fill 24 hours with news day in and day – forever. One way to do this was to repeat news over and over; the second was to include news that wouldn’t necessarily have appeared in a 30-minute show.

Thus the seeds were sown for the evolution of a new form of news reporting that is referred to as newtainment, a portmanteau of “news” and “entertainment.”

For some, this has become a problem. By the start of the 21st century, not only has CNN added different entities across the globe (and Headline News) but there were other players, such as MSNBC and Fox News. But what also appeared was the tendency for programs to blur the line between hard news and entertainment, and for the entertainment tail to begin wagging the news dog. For example, on February 2nd, 2004, the headline news was about Janet Jackson showing a nipple on national TV; second was the mailing of the deadly poison, Ricin, to Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist. The nipple slip dominated the network for days, not because of any inherently newsworthy content but because people love to hear about nipple slips.

Bill Frist

Janet Jackson

In April 2003, Professor Richard Breyer of the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University, New York, published an article entitled Newstainment: Cable news goes for the Oooomph. In it, he suggested that cable news was slouching toward a prurient Gomorrah where interviews  Rosie O’Donnell on gay adoptions, and a Las Vegas brothel owner are “news.” In fairness, he didn’t use the word “slouching,” “Gomorrah,” or “prurient,” but I couldn’t resist a little paraphrasing.

Later the same year, a group of Australian comedians who had created a spoof news network, CNNNN (Chaser Non-stop News Network) in September 2002, won an “award” for their “Director of Newstainment,” Rudi Blass. To quote Blass, “The challenge was to make everyday news more interesting,” he said. “And I think that through the judicious use of semi-naked dancers, we’ve more than risen to that challenge.”

The definition of newstainment is still fuzzy. Even the paragon of current slang, The Urban Dictionary, has yet to offer a first-stab at the word; and the other source of user-generated definitions, the Wiktionary, is similarly ripe for a wannabee lexicographer. Those interested in numbers might like to consider the following:

Ghits = 13,200

Yhits = 10,400

Bhits = 3,060

These scores are so low that you might argue it’s hardly worth considering it as a word at all, more a “flash in the pan” that is doomed to extinction in the lexical gene pool, but somehow I think it deserves at least its own 15-minutes of fame. Compare these scores with its close synonym, infotainment:

Ghits = 25,700,000

Yhits = 3,380,00

Bhits = 1,300,000

Now you see how this “hopeful monster” may well end up as a footnote in blog – or at least this single article.

My guess is that the use of newstainment is more of an Australian phenomenon rather than a world-wide English development. It appears in a scholarly journal article by an Australian author (Harrington, S. How Does “Newstainment” Actually Work?: Ethnographic Research Methods and Contemporary Popular News, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA. Online PDF 2009-05-24 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p168430_index.html) but I have been unable to find many references outside of the country. Again, its use in Oz is not unexpected considering the phenomenon of the popular CNNNN comedy from the early 2000’s.

Another nail in the coffin for newstainment is its lack of change to accommodate other grammatical classes. Most successful words quickly take on new forms by adding endings and switching teams. If you look at infotainment (the noun), you will find other forms such as infotaining, infortained, infotainer, infotains, and even infotainingly (adverb but only 59 ghits). Contrast that with newstainment that shows no evidence of verb inflections (except as a misspelling of “new staining” or “new stained”) and only 39 ghits for newstainer.

So if newstainment is a brief mayfly of a word, tragically destined to be pushed aside by the more robust infotainment, let’s at least tip our hat to a brave contender and acknowledge its transient existence. After all, who knows how many other words have been and gone and never been recorded? It’s as if they never lived.

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2 Comments

Filed under Etymology

2 responses to “newstainment /nyuz’təɪnmənt/

  1. charles oppenheim

    The history of the Infotainers at Sheffield in 1980 is not quite accurate. The Infotainers (of whom I was one) performed our sketches at a joint conference run by the Institute of Information Scientists, the Library Association and a third body called Aslib.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Charles. The internet is a wonderful source of information but its actual veracity (or maybe “truthiness”) is always a little dodgy. Fortunately it is also open – usually – for corrections. Without the internet, I would never even have heard of the Infotainers in the first place and the story of your group, although inaccurate, is still fascinating!

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