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.
Consider just one model, public radio and television, which in the U.S. is a pale comparison to what many other developed nations subsidize. Our government’s commitment still requires the significant local subsidy of voluntary contributors and substantial dollars from businesses and foundations. Interestingly, we consistently hear loud cries from some people that public broadcasting is too liberal, while others feel it rarely tells the whole story because editors are looking over their shoulders in fear of being branded liberal or biased.
Clearly, news writers are politicians in the sense that they are striking a balance regarding what the largest number of people can actually hear and understand. During that amazing, historical news conference with Mikhail Gorbachev (historical also for the fact that major television networks carried it for a long time, pre-empting their regular advertisers’ markets), after he miraculously reappeared from that fabled Soviet place where people go when they are reportedly “ill and unavailable,” (a place from which they rarely, if ever, had returned in the past), a news reporter’s comment about politicians prompted Gorbachev to respond energetically with the blanket accusation that “all you news reporters are politicians, too.” This is not a nefarious, evil plot, as much as it is a consequence of human nature. People cannot understand news presented in terms residing outside their frame of reference. Therefore, like language itself, news concepts and vocabularies progress slowly, on the basis of lived experience and developing needs. Of course, if your interest is primarily in making money, then stretching the envelope of consensual understanding would likely be counter-intuitive. Enforcing a known universe of meaning with which to barter makes much more sense.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to excuse the current and cataclysmic crisis occurring in journalism, which seems largely owing to the fact that commercial interests of the largest size imaginable (until the next merger) control most of the decision making that brings us news of the republic, even locally. (If you’re convinced that a liberal bias controls the media, consider that it may be that you simply have very little tolerance for news that does not consistently propagandize in support of that uniquely American belief only now beginning to evaporate in our troubled, post-modern times: that the 1950s in America are going to come back.) There is something even more elemental behind the politics of news writing than our fears, whether they mold us toward the left-wing or the right-wing, and it has to do with what people can understand and what they are willing to hear or consider, a wide array, indeed.
Of course, there is certainly a value in advocacy journalism, which speaks to needs that produce the
Bruce Andersons and Rush Limbaughs. Perhaps their most helpful function, beyond their bread and butter entertainment value, is to provide accountability from a specific perspective. Let’s admit it, lefties, sometimes William F. Buckley, Jr. was right. And sometimes Bruces’ most dire harangue rings quite true even when you know he’s being intentionally hyperbolic, (oh, no, you don’t have to admit to that Bruce, I know–and, incidentally– the only real admission I’ve ever heard Rush made was to a former colleague of mine who reported that once, when he was drunk, early in his career, at an industry convention, he was wailing on the couch in a hospitality room that he couldn’t believe that people were actually buying whole the hype he was selling. Officially, Limbaugh has said he’s principally an entertainer, whose main job is to deliver a large audience to his advertisers.)
But if we all only read the news from a perspective of the people that stake out a position next to ours, at what point can we assure ourselves we’re not headed straight into the bigot’s oblivion? If there is something to be said for democracy, it is not the fascist perspective that it’s really we elite who understand what’s going on, and what ought to be done. Rather, isn’t it something much closer to the consensual models of decision making? As a people no longer willing to tolerate slavery, the deprecation of women or the singular rule of property owners, we aspire, nonetheless, as inheritors of the founding father’s highest vision, to something closer to the (very redeeming) conflict resolution models that assure all people’s needs are mutually respected. Don’t we? Mendocino County is a place with a sizable percentage of people who actually understand and value such a vision of social discourse, even if we also demonstrate the same ranges for intolerance of people with whom we disagree, as most humans in history. (I know I certainly do, from time to time.)
Short of the best hopes for the Googlezon mythology, the kind of entirely democratic blogosphere that produces information about all that is going on (necessarily deciphered by technology–the new God that must not be challenged and through whom all hope is directed), what’s really needed is highly valued and broadly trusted news organizations, accessible by the largest number, that we, or most of us, actually pay for. Yes, pay for. Yes, I’m talking about a real revolution. I’m talking about paying for content on the internet!
It’s expensive to produce a quality news product, whether in print, as audio, or most of all in an audio/visual format. Some stories cry out for video, but most don’t. Most of us want to watch TV (a galling but simple fact), so most people get their news that way. Many stories do well in audio format, because you can hear the other humans and how they talk about what’s going on. (Commercial radio typically can offer little more than headlines, however.) Print also has its strengths, being able to present the facts, (always according to someone, if we’re being honest) in a cogent form you can re-read and cross reference. In our internet age, the computer has become the fastest means of communication, whereas much less than 20 years ago, people turned on the radio first to find out what was happening. (This was back in the day when a smaller number of local stations existed, but all still had real, live people at the microphone, nearly all the time.) Of course, both audio and print are relatively easy to produce and provide via the Internet, if all the other pieces are in place.
So, it’s expensive, but it can be done. What’s needed is to translate whatever level of energy and interest local people may have into something that can manifest the wherewithal to make it happen. Part of that has been invented and is called money, of local denomination or otherwise. What else is needed ought be the topic of another (would be) conversation, as this one’s getting long, but included in that list is not only regular cash contributions (think subscriptions, for a highly valued service), but people willing to send in good news tips to be followed up, and their willingness to sell the idea to expanding communities of potential subscribers, that is, to talk it up with their friends and acquaintances.
But let’s bring this back on the main question. Can we see that it takes a community, and a monthly subscription, to save our capacity to have high quality, local news? Anyway, that’s my view. Just how poor I, or anyone else, might be willing to be in order to risk creating it, is another decision. Feel free to let me know what you think. For me, I think, the next step will be to do a survey. If there’s interest to be found, I’ll be happy to report back.