By Larry Backus
It seems appropriate that I am writing this column on April Fool’s Day. You and I may agree that we may, at times, have a sense of being fooled by the nightly news, the incessant emails, blogs and magazine articles that give the recipient a partial, if not entirely incomplete take on the news. I wonder if being first and as brief as possible with the news has become much more of a priority than the accuracy of the information. There is so much more news being reported throughout the world today – the information overload has resulted in a need for speed and brevity – it is not surprising then that news outlets might cobble their news to a particular point of view, set of events, or key personalities. Two editorial articles in the Wall Street Journal in March instigated this column “Getting the Journalism You Pay For” by L. Gordon Crovitz and “Counting the Costs of the New-News Chaos” by Edward Kosner. Other prods to write this column are the excellent columns and articles in our local newspapers with names attached such as Brush, Nelson, Mullinix, Moser, Gill and Walther. I read a number of newspapers, magazines, books, as well as adding internet and TV to my mix of information sources. Some of these sources are expensive. Therefore, I am confident when I write that your local newspapers are a great bargain, despite the fact they are struggling to remain solvent and relevant in a fast changing world.
The first WSJ column, by Crovitz, tried to answer the question, “What happens to in-depth reporting in the age of the blog post.” It chronicled the plight of veteran foreign correspondent Nate Thayer who had published a 4,000 word article on an internet blog about his 25 years of experience in covering United States/North Korean diplomacy. Thayer is also renowned for arduous and life threatening reporting in Cambodia. An editor of Atlantic magazine offered to publish a 1,000 word version of the article. Thayer refused because the content would be destroyed, not to mention the discounted price he would receive for his 25 years of effort.
Thayer clarified the point of the article: “Someone needs to figure out a way to make a profit bringing a free press to a free people. In the meantime, it would be nice to be able to pay my rent.” The Atlantic editor apparently made a decision that a multi-part article was too expensive, thereby denying his “13 million” readers of unique and hard earned knowledge. While you are chewing on this story, I will advise you that Clint Gill, editor of the Glade Sun began a multi-part column on our American Constitution in January. His writing and research are as good as any high school or college civics course on the subject. A newspaper is a valuable tool for knowledge.
The second WSJ column, by Kosner, compares the old news media or “Jurassic” journalism in newspapers, radio and TV with the new, instant digital technology of news. He enumerates the latest Pew Research Center findings on what mediums Americans use for their news sources: local and network TV – 55 percent; radio – 33 percent; newspapers – 29 percent. However, the most telling statistic is of people age 25 and under who get 60 percent of their news from digital sources, such as the internet and smart phones. Kosner believes, “In the tweeted and blogged era of journalism, what is lost is a sense of coherence that helps keep us sane. I believe we were better off as a society when we had fallible but reasonable people sorting out what mattered and what you needed to know about it.”
There are positive points to be derived from Kosner’s point of view. However, I believe that digital news is merely the entry level for billions of people who previously lived with little or no news of the world they inhabited. I believe this abbreviated knowledge will lead to a thirst for more knowledge and a better understanding of our world. Nothing has given me more confidence in what I might write in my column than receiving internet inquiries from other states and other countries. The internet is personal and, at its best, it expands information and knowledge at a colossal rate. It can also be much more invasive and destructive than the old media. Let us hope and pray that our new technology will help bring our world closer together; that it will expand knowledge and help lead to a better life for all; that it will help provide insight and understanding that will make world peace a real possibility. Would that not be a novel experience?