Monday, July 25, 2011

The Economist and the future of news

The prestigious British magazine The Economist, which traces its lineage to 1843, predicts advances in technology will eventually take news consumers "back to the coffee house" era when men in whigs and three-cornered hats debated public policy ad nauseam. Has the author been in a coffee house lately? I've never heard anyone in my local Starbucks debate anything. Most flee with their hands tightly clutching cups. Those who stay stare down at laptops that resemble tombstones, making me visualize the line in Eleanor Rigby about "all the lonely people." I think a better analogy for the future would be a beer hall - that's beer hall as in putsch.

I can not understand why the 14-page special report in the July 9th edition failed to mention wire services, the main gatherers and distributors of news. Perhaps bringing up the subject might undermine the article's premise that "news is becoming a social medium again, as it was until the early 19th century - only more so." Just who was the author? I was just about ready to conclude that "it beats the hell out of me" when I spotted very small print at the bottom of the first page that informed me of the availability of "an interview" with the author. I checked it out and got an earful from Tom Standage, the magazine's "digital" editor. Digital is apt, since he gave the finger to some honored journalistic traditions - such as a byline. The first graf of the report states: "The Internet has turned the news industry upside down, making it more participatory, social, diverse and partisan - as it used to be before the arrival of the mass media, says Tom Standage." The graf is set off in type much darker than the rest of the piece, making it seem more like a headline than part of the story. Standage's name is given, but not his job title or qualifications. All I could think of was those phony names people use in postings under "comment" lines.

Looking to the future is an easy assignment since no one knows for sure what tomorrow brings. We can take a pretty good shot at the past, however, and on that score the article came up short. In seeing that "in the Internet age, transparency may count for more than objectivity," The Economist goes on to report that "during the 19th century newspapers gradually adopted a more objective stance" in order to appeal to a wider audience. Really? Anyone heard of Mr. Hearst? Newspapers then were outrageous in their partisanship. Everyone connected with the Economist report should be forced to watch "The Front Page." The wire services were the real pioneers in objectivity. Truly, they could not afford to offend. That, perhaps, is one reason many people criticize news agency writing as bland.

The section on objectivity delves in to what it refers to as "the Foxification of news." Why the surprise at the power and success of Fox News, or any outlet that gives conservatives a voice? Several of my earlier postings concern the birth of talk radio, which wouldn't have seen the light of day if print media had been more balanced.

The Economist report is better, I think, when it concerns the business end of news. I am the first to admit that I know little about that subject, although I am sure bad business decisions are responsible for more newspaper deaths than bad reporting. I know that first hand, having worked at UPI for 25 years and saw the stake put through its heart. Under bold type reading "Fun while it lasted," a chart shows the decline in newspaper ad revenue from 1980 to today. I was there when newspapers were pretty much the only game in town. My book reports on what I saw which was what happens when no one stands up to the neighborhood bully. The important part of newspaper is news, not paper.

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