Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Media in Crisis Reports on the Media in Crisis

RSM tipped me off to this. Go put a nickle in his tip jar.

In Sunday's Washington Post, Kathleen Parker tosses in her two cents into the echo chamber that is The Media in Crisis talking about The Media in Crisis. I could simply tee off on her, but quite frankly, my anger reserves are running low, and pity is kicking in for traditional media folks. Instead, I'll try to share the good parts, and use the bad to illustrate the common errors that Traditional Media types are making. I'm sick of generating more heat than light.

She starts with this line:
The biggest challenge facing America's struggling newspaper industry may not be the high cost of newsprint or lost ad revenue, but ignorance stoked by drive-by punditry.

No. The biggest challenge facing newspapers is two-fold:

First, one problem that their industry solved and profited from--distributing information--is no longer a problem to be solved. Paper can not compete with the Internet as a distribution medium. This part of the issue is settled and done with.

Second, in the 20th century, traditional media became trusted voices in the only media that existed. Organizations, be they broadcast news or newspapers, that violated the trust of their customers got left behind. This is why (most) journalists take the ethical responsibility of their profession so seriously. Trust matters, regardless of the method of distribution.

Parker goes on to say:
There is surely room for media criticism, and a few bad actors in recent years have badly frayed public trust. And, yes, some newspapers are more liberal than their readership and do a lousy job of concealing it.

But it isn't that trust has been violated by newspapers, so much as newspapers now must compete on nearly even footing with non-traditional media types as trsuted voices. It's not just the bloggers like me, it's everyone. We share links and videos with our friends and families on Facebook. We collectively rate content on sites like Digg and Delicious. The voices I trust are carried to me in the same RSS feed whether they are CNN, the New York Times, or the blogs of my friends. And, forgive me, but I trust some of my friends more than I trust CNN.

Christie Hefner touches on the idea of trust in media on Morning Joe:


Traditional media has to compete with everybody we know as a trusted voice. They are not ready for this competition. It's only new beginning to creep up on them like a nagging feeling. It bubbles to surface in off-handed quips about bloggers by traditional media figures, rants against "drive-by punditry" like Parker's, or the generally clueless dismissal of technologies like Facebook or Twitter. (How many times have you heard some media type on TV poke fun at this stuff, and then promptly admit that they "just don't get it".)

Parker continues:
But the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic. Unfortunately, the chorus of media bashing from certain quarters has succeeded in convincing many Americans that they don't need newspapers.

She's absolutely correct on this point. Professional journalists are the front line of defense watching over governments and corporations that may much prefer to work well away from the public eye. But it isn't "media bashing" that's convinced Americans that they don't need newspapers. We need journalists. We need real news. We need the exact kind of boots-on-the-ground reporting that she's extolling. You can keep your paper, the printing presses, the delivery trucks, and your fluff pieces. We can do all that for ourselves now.
A younger generation, meanwhile, has little understanding or appreciation of the relationship between a free press and a free society. Pew found that just 27 percent of Americans born since 1977 read a newspaper the previous day.

Parker mistakes not reading a newspaper for not reading news. Steve Boriss wrote in 2008:
Thomas Jefferson had no interest in empowering a special class, "the press," who today present themselves as superior in their abilities to ferret out, understand, and communicate the single, correct way to look at things. Instead, he wanted our news to be filled with a multitude of alternative voices and opinions competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.

Sounds to me like that's what we're headed for, both a freer press and freer society, not the opposite.

For certain, we need to find a way to keep "boots-on-the-ground" journalism alive and thriving in the face of this new media, but even meager ad-supported monetization strategies could work for real journalism if they were freed from the bonds of supporting an archaic print distribution system. As for the "drive-by punditry?" We'll make, share, and link our own, thanks. Maybe this is why Kathleen Parker, and so many traditional media types, feel so threatened?

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