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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Future of News and my days as a small-town newspaper guy

Len Ackland, the co-director of the fellowship I'm in at the University of Colorado in Boulder, sent out a Columbia Journalism Review article by Dean Starkman called The Confidence Game. The article calls into question the concept that centralized journalism, particularly long-form journalism, is a dying breed. It's a great piece.

After reading the article, I sat down to send Len a quick note thanking him for sending out the article, and to tell him about how my experience as a small-town newspaper owner tinted my views on such things. By the time I looked up from my keyboard, I realized I had quite a bit to say. And it wasn't until I pushed "Reply All" that I realized Len had sent The Confidence Game out to a big group that is currently debating the future of the school of journalism at the university. Here's my response:

It makes me think back to the years I spent running a weekly newspaper in Silverton, Colo.. Silverton isn't only a small town -- year-round population approx. 450 -- but it is also isolated by mountain passes on either side, and is the only town in the county and the county seat. That meant that all the business, all the politics, all the decisions, and about 90 percent of the "news" took place in a space that is about one mile long by one-third of a mile wide. And that meant that, long before the Internet was even conceived of, the newspaper in Silverton should have been obsolete under the "Future of News" gurus models. That is, you didn't need a weekly newspaper to tell you what was going on, because there were plenty of "citizen journalists" (read, gossips) to fill you in wherever you went. The streets themselves, the post office, the coffee shop and the Miner's Tavern were the Internet of Silverton, overflowing with information; if a big decision was made at Town Hall, the whole town knew about it, or could know about it, by the next day at noon, which might be a full week before they read about it in the newspaper.

Nonetheless, the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper has continued to be published, and read, every single week without a break since 1875. And during that 136 years, there have been many times when Silverton had two or even more newspapers (this even happened in the post-Internet age). They even kept reading it after big news was broken on Facebook or various Web sites, and after all the town/county/school board meetings were broadcast live on the local radio station, allowing everyone to get the big news delivered to them as it happened.


Because people naturally need and therefore crave the authority, voice, context and commentary that a news organization can offer by a newspaper, even if it isn't delivered in "real time." They know that while Donna down at the Post Office can tell you about how the vote turned out at last night's school board meeting, and even who voted for what, they also know that she didn't sit through all three miserable hours of the meeting recording not only the vote, but also the argument leading up to it; and not only that, but also the mood of the board members, and the audience, and the rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth. Nor did she go back into the school the next day and pester the superintendent and the principal and get the inside scoop; nor did she dig through databases on the Internet and crunch numbers and make more calls to figure out what they mean. Nor did she dig back in the archives to see what may have led up to that particular vote.

The reporter did all of that.

And so, even a week after the vote, when everyone in town already knew the results and the straight news, they still put a couple of quarters in a machine, picked up the Standard and read the story about it, because it offered extra value, value that could not be delivered by Donna or even the Miner's Tavern's "Round Table" of town drunks and elected officials where most official decisions were actually made.

With the Web oozing into every facet of our lives, and citizen journalists, bloggers, and the like oozing right along with it, the whole world now looks a bit like Silverton always has. By following my Twitter feed, Facebook, and various breaking news sources, I can find out over and over what is happening at any given time at any given place, just as anybody could in Silverton by heading over to the Courthouse and chatting up Melody, the Sheriff's dispatcher and town busy body/pre-cyberspace Twitter feed. This can be extremely valuable in some instances -- one could probably get a better sense of what was happening with the Four Mile Fire as it burned via Twitter than from any official news outlet, thereby allowing people to react appropriately. Yet the only places that one could get a credible, in-depth, contextual account of WHY the Four Mile Fire happened, and how, and what led up to it, and what it says about wildfire in the West, climate change, fire suppression and exurban development, is from official news outlets, perhaps days, weeks, even years after the fire went out. And the fact is, people are still interested in these in-depth, long-form analyses, long after the event itself (and, yes, they will pay for them… otherwise the New Yorker would have gone out of business years ago).

The former -- the citizen journalism, social media, or cyber-gossiping -- then, is indeed valuable: It's a means of relaying raw information to a large number of people with virtually no delay. Yet it is not something that needs to be taught -- I'm sorry, but the idea of social media classes, or courses in Tweeting or Facebooking, is as absurd as courses on office gossip and chit-chat. It comes naturally. The latter -- the digging, the data-mining, the verifying and reverifying the data, the phone calls to reluctant sources, the analysis, and the conveyance of all that information in a digestible, compelling, and even fun-to-read format. Now that takes an education.

And so it is that I can give at least one reason to keep a somewhat traditional journalism school alive: To ensure that there's someone qualified to deliver credible and contextualized information to the fine people of Silverton, Colorado. And beyond.

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