What’s going on around here, and how are we going to find out?

From Kevin Murphy

Reflections on facing the reality of dying news functions

Dave Smith reminded me recently of an inexorable truth coined by Stewart Brand, the original publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue, that “information wants to be free.” Alas, the world is a much more jumbled place and our need for information in the modern world more complicated. Presumably in heaven information is free and instantaneous. Here and now, however, the situation is a bit different.

I believe it was Thomas Merton who wrote that the only place communism could be expected to actually work was the monastery. Likewise, a great deal of commitment would be needed in the perfect communication model. If, among your friends and acquaintances there was compelling consensus about what was most important and how information needed to be shared, and everyone willingly dedicated a part of their energy to that whole, we wouldn’t need newspapers or news feeds or RSS, assuming our community of friends and acquaintances was large enough that someone was involved in all the communities or organizations where there was important public information (and we all talked to each other enough). I suppose that’s the sort of thing which the Googlezon mythology describes, the creation of a global blogosphere, distilled down to each person’s interests and delivered by digital robots, providing all the information we need at the touch of a button, culled from what every one had offered. Again, that heaven, if that’s what it would be, ain’t here yet, either.

An old saying in the newspaper business is “If advertising isn’t going to pay for the news, who will, the tooth fairy?” Sharp business minds understand that waiting for the tooth fairy is a less appealing business plan than selling advertising. Thus we arrive at the professional consensus that a newspaper is first of all a retail merchandising tool, and only secondarily a means of supporting democracy. The critical value of the availability of reliable news about public affairs, a life blood of democracy, it seems to me, should be judged as only a bit less important than civility, mutual respect and enforceable legal agreements regarding how the public’s business is to be conducted. (The presumed goal being to assure, at least, the tyranny of the majority, and one hopes, significant consideration to minorities. While some readers would have the discussion at this point veer off toward the necessary demise of the two party system, please allow me to make a different point.) Like education in California, the way the purpose of our news is married to its funding doesn’t make sense; the funding structure doesn’t reflect the importance society places on it. (Or, perhaps, it does.)

I can envision a local news organization that appeals to the realization that getting the kind of quality information about the public’s business is not best left to the whims of advertising budgets, especially at a time like this. If in heaven, or sometime before, information will finally get its wish and become entirely free, there’s still however, before those final revolutions of love and truth, some smaller, but necessary preparatory revolutions. Perhaps like the extreme revolution I am proposing. We must consider that we will have to pay for the news, or we won’t be getting it reliably, especially at the local level.

Keep reading What’s going on around here…


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