Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tweets to start the presses?

AS A NEWSPAPER junkie who has regularly fantasized that the media will find a way to survive, I am now beginning to ask myself: What's left that's worth surviving? In their frantic effort to tack against the technological challenges that today's culture finds so fascinating, newspapers have overextended themselves into their own dream world that has little or nothing to do with news. It is as though physicians would recommend twittering as a cure for diabetes, or digital TV to correct blindness.

Each day brings us more hip novelties intended to make newspapers and the broadcasters connect with readers and audiences in the Twitosphere, a kind of recreational hi-tech sandbox for many of its chatty mobile users. The local hometown paper asks us to join with it with an interactive Twitter View, the first one from, of all places Rockin' on the River in Cuyahoga Falls, enjoying the "fun" of twittering (tweeting?) with reporters "as the story unfolds". What story? How will that translate into new subscribers?

Or should journalists now engage in what an Akron-Cleveland area TV reporter-anchor prescribed as "social media" - the various tech ways to communicate with sources that make life so much simpler for the busy reporter. (You can stay out of the elements and don't have to wait so long for your calls to be returned. We used to say that the best stories resulted in the wear and tear of shoe leather.) If it's "interaction" that the media are looking for these days, it's the published boasts by the Beacon Journal that it has hooked up with WAKR Radio to bring you news of the mayoral recall campaign, which is what it should be doing as a newspaper sans a broadcasting armrest anyway. Collegiality is in; competition is out.

Virtually nobody mentions the word "journalism" anymore, yet it is something falsely implied in serving the public's critical need for news. The suicidal use of gimmicky appeals to disguise cutbacks in staff and coverage is not restricted to the Akron area as media owners who might have trouble writing a postcard home hasten the day to put themselves out of business. Writing in The Nation recently, Columnist Eric Alterman summed up the situation as well as anybody. He said:
"The men and women who continue to work in the newspaper business inhabit a surreal world. It's as if they are organisms inside a body felled by a fatal disease, and all the doctors prescribe is more poison. Charge for individual articles on the web? That would just send people to the free stuff. Demand that Google compensate the newspapers for the links? Watch your stories disappear when they stop coming up in Google searches. Stop publishing a print edition? Lose what's left of your only significant earnings base. Oh well - there's always more room for deeper budget cuts, more section cuts, more buyouts, fewer editors, etc....

"It's painful to admit, but admit it we must: we have no more hope today of saving the "newspaper business" than we do the "telegraph business. " What is needed - pronto - is a plan to save the collection and dissemination of news itself."

Call it a pandemic in the news field. Network TV and the cable have been unwilling to fill in the huge gaps left by newspapers sworn to strictly "local" coverage, piecemeal though it may be. On a playing field choked by complex issues, network TV's evening news shows are limited to 22-minute Reader's Digest versions of serious world events, with two minutes here and a minute there. Cable talk shows have fallen into self-absorbed superficiality, paying more attention to what the competitive hosts are saying than what the viewers should be getting. The Sunday morning talk shows have become beauty contests for the highly paid royalty: George Will, Cokie Roberts and their professional kin with scarcely anything new to say. The Internet is making some progress, of course, but too often, it is news-on-the-run with Hearst-like headlines. And it's not conveniently packaged for your breakfast table each morning.

Faced with shrinking advertising dollars, the media have retreated into comfort zones that will not annoy their own corporate owners nor the easily annoyed rich and powerful board rooms across America. No better evidence of this can be found than in the current hoopla over proposed reform of health insurance. The health insurance industry has already spent a king's ransom to block a single-payer program and has found among its collaborators two Senate Democrats, Ben Nelson and Max Baucus, both of whom are well provided for by the industry's lobbyists. Likewise, a media study by the Washington newsletter FAIR reports that of the hundreds of healthcare stories in newspapers and on Network TV and cable, "the idea of single payer was mentioned only 18 times - and only five of those included the views of single-payer advocates." I'll ask you to do the math from now on.

The national media's lemming-like support of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq has only served to create greater greater public cynicism that hardly paid off on the subscriber lists despite later editorial apologies for blowing the biggest story or our generation.

Meantime, while print media circle their wagons, I am reminded that J. Paul Getty once observed, "The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights." But a meek newspaper industry seeking a hip realm may inherit nothing more than its own epitaph.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of news, the Morrison-University of Akron trial date has been scheduled for July 28th.

Anonymous said...

Abe: You are still hitting home runs.

Newspapers have been failing for a much longer time than the internet exists as a competitor.

They forgot they were to represent the people, not the kings.

Grumpy Abe said...

Does anybody remember the press's golden old mandate to " "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"?