08 June 2010

Mass Media, Citizen Journalists and the FTC

A good reporter knows to never become the story (no, this isn't the time to discuss Helen Thomas), but one of the biggest stories of the last couple of years has been the changing nature of mass media as a commercially viable industry.  Various businesses have folded, and others have struggled to find a new approach to keep themselves in the black.  The problem is that 30 years after the launch of CNN, even the most basic cable or satellite package includes more 24 hour news channels than the average person could possibly watch.  More significantly, we disseminate information instantly online these days; there's really nothing to be said in a print edition tomorrow that hasn't already been said today.  It's hard to imagine why anyone would actually pay money for news updates.

A friend of mine posted a link earlier today to this editorial from the Washington Times.  Because I'm a firm believer in irony, I'm tempted to make you read the editorial, but since I suspect you're as lazy as I am I'll tell you that it concerns a proposal from the Federal Trade Commission to find ways of subsidizing mass media.  The idea is that the Washington Times, for instance, provided the content about which you are now reading in my blog, thus discouraging you from visiting their website and rewarding their sponsors for their advertising space.  To get square, the FTC would like to see the various services that provide links to news articles pay a tax.  Of course, that would eventually lead to yours truly having to decide whether to pay a licensing fee to discuss an editorial or article posted elsewhere.  It seems to be contrary to the very nature of the Internet, where speech has generally been freer than in any other medium.  Certainly, one can say or display things online that would never fly on radio or television (even basic cable).

The Washington Times posits that, "Fostering a robust public-policy debate, not saving a particular business model, should be the goal of journalism in the first place."  I agree with this perspective.  TV Guide was once an authoritative weekly digest that really lived up to its title.  You got regional listings for every channel in your area, from midnight on the first day of coverage until midnight on the last day of coverage, with brief synopses of about half of every program.

Now, the listings are restricted to national, prime time broadcasts.  TV Guide figured they could save a lot of money by asking its readers to go online to find out what's on TV, and dedicate their printed magazine to news announcements and editorial content.  And why should readers be content to read an editorial, and then have to decide whether or not to respond by writing a letter that most likely will not be selected for inclusion in a subsequent issue, when we can go online and post our thoughts and reactions to others instantly?

If TV Guide has made an effective use of their websites to counter the decreasing value of a printed periodical, why can't general news providers do so?  Firstly, it's important to note that we're assuming everything is fine with them.  TV Guide had moved to a bi-weekly schedule the last I saw, meaning they're offering significantly less content to readers than they did a decade ago.  They're counting on readers being interested enough in plot speculations and industry gossip to keep the magazine relevant for two weeks at a time.  In the entertainment world, two weeks is an awfully long time; entire scandals can break and be in the hands of spin doctors by the time they go to print.

Breaking news waits for no one, and the Internet has made next-day summaries irrelevant.  That means that what a publisher offers readers needs to be unique.  It has to offer the kind of thoughtful analysis that helps readers place events in their proper context.  This, ultimately, is what the publishers and editors need to address.  Fans call in to sports talk radio shows every day, and nearly all of them carry the swagger of an expert.  But there's a reason that Dan Patrick is the host and not George from Waukeegan.  Dan Patrick is a professional, trained in the art of presenting a story to an audience.  He puts in a lot of time audiences never see, studying players, statistics, games and such.  He has honed the craft of interviewing the individuals who make sports what they are, from rigid coaches to mercurial players and shameless agents.  George from Waukeegan's qualification is that he supplements watching games by listening to Dan Patrick on the radio.

The general news world needs to compete with citizen journalists and bloggers by...not competing with them.  Rather, the real threat to mas media is...other mass media.  It's no coincidence that the documentaries of Michael Moore have found such an enthusiastic audience in recent years.  People will willingly pay money to see the kind of investigative reporting that they can't do for themselves.  Too much of our "proper" journalists have become little more than glorified bloggers, offering editorials rather than actual reports.  We can make those kinds of remarks for ourselves.  I enjoy posting about socio-political events every now and again, but I have no illusions that I've got something unique to offer you, the reader.

I also understand why you wouldn't feel compelled to pay to read the writings of someone else if they weren't more thoughtful and better informed than me.  I read an article on the Huffington Post website today by Alec Baldwin in which he expressed outrage at BP.  I have enjoyed his work as an actor over the years, and while I applauded his Huffington Post editorial, the truth is that Baldwin's star power is the only reason his diatribe was featured.  There's a guy I follow on Twitter who has been unrelenting in posting scathing remarks and posting links to various articles related to the oil spill since it began.  If he was a Baldwin, he'd be revered for doing his homework.  Meanwhile, the actual Baldwin's writing--impassioned though it was--was basically standard blog material.

If the mass media wants to save itself, it needs to remember the first rule of reporting: give the people what they want.  We can post emotionally inspired rants for ourselves.  What we can't do is actually have access to the kinds of people and documents that professional reporters are accustomed to gleaning for information.  Go talk to the movers and shakers of the world.  Find the evidence against wrong-doers.  Quit offering the kind of vapid--and increasingly unstable--whining of Glenn Beck and instead put the Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins to work on today's Watergate.  Those two reporters actually investigated something.  Sir David Frost later completed their work by forcing the mea culpa from President Nixon that was the confession the nation wanted since the story broke.  A group of Monday morning quarterbacks--no matter their resumes--are simply not worth the cost to readers, and they shouldn't be for their employers.

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