Pittsburgh Media Futures

Read the Post-Gazette editorial that somewhat defensively reserves pride of place to print journalism in the face of surging social media.

Read Chris Briem's deconstruction (demolition?) of that editorial.


Chris's punchline:
It’s not that the medium is changing, but how people are relating to the news that is changing. Print media once ruled because it was a captive and passive audience that had little other source for the news that mattered to them. Both the captive and the passive part are history. The former more so than the latter, but give it a few months. Newspapers have to realize they will never again be that sole source of information. Their future will be finding a role in that new world where we are all ‘prosumers’.
That's half of the story -- the half that talks about the audience. Music, film, television -- all are dealing with precisely the same McLuhan-ish problem. It's not that some like it hot. It's all hot.

The other half of the story, though, has nothing to do with the audience and everything to do with the supplier. Newspapers are doomed if they think of themselves as being in the "print" business. (They may be doomed anyway, the Post-Gazette included, but thinking in "print" terms only hastens their demise.) Newspapers delivered print because print was the only way that newspapers could deliver the news -- and only newspapers could deliver the news.

But anyone can deliver "the news" today. What no one gets from newspapers any longer isn't print, but journalism, in the sense that journalism really means: the skill and craft of not only finding out and deciding what is "news" in a meaningful sense, but analyzing, assembling, and presenting the "news" to an interested audience. Newspapers used to give us the facts because no one else did, but newspapers also used to tell us what the facts meant. Political scientists remember great debates in the 1980s about whether news media set the political agenda for the country by choosing what things to report and highlight; they spent hours and hours reading the New York Times and coding story placement and headlines. Those debates seem pretty quaint today. Whatever traditional newspapers used to do, no one worries that they shape our worldview so much that politicians can't think of anything else to say.

But they could do that.

Folks under 35 -- hell, folks under 40 -- have a difficult time conceiving of how the world worked before CNN, before you didn't know what happened in the world until you picked up the paper in your driveway, on your front porch, or at the newsstand in the morning or tuned into the CBS Evening News at night, before there were so many facts in your face that there wasn't time to figure out what they all meant. They often don't know what they're missing; in the absence of leadership, the blogosphere fills the void with whatever is at hand. "News" today just means "facts," the more and faster the better. When the Post-Gazette admires the symbiosis of "print journalists" and bloggers, it's talking about a blogosphere that exists largely because real journalism mostly disappeared long ago -- with occasional and salient exceptions, some stories at the PG included. The idiocy of Fox News isn't its right-slanted tilt; it's the "We Report, You Decide" slogan. That isn't journalism; it's abdication. As Pogo intimated long ago, the inmates are running the asylum.

You want to know what "traditional" (read: print-based) media are thriving in the changed all-the-information-you-can't-eat economy? Media that can charge lots for both online and offline content? It's things like The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times -- journals with strong foundations in the relatively well-off financial and economic sectors, to be sure, but also journals whose bread and butter isn't telling us "the facts" so that bloggers can run with them.
We already have "the facts." These are journals who tell us what facts matter and why. With an edge and a perspective, usually fully disclosed, but with the craft that accompanies training and discipline, worn lightly but clearly for all to see, read, and appreciate.

If the Post-Gazette and other daily papers want to carve out a niche for themselves going forward, among other things they need to abandon the fiction that anyone needs them to give us "the facts." The facts are out there, free for the taking, and citizen journalists -- as imperfect and ill-trained as they are today -- will get them out. As time passes, they will do better.
Walter Cronkite was a newsman before he was a TV celebrity, and when he said "And that's the way it is," he meant not just that he was Joe Friday in the anchor chair, giving us the facts, but instead that he was telling us what mattered. If he didn't say it, then it didn't. There are newsmen of the same stripe -- and women -- writing and editing the Post-Gazette, but they are rarely seen or heard. The Post-Gazette tells us what happened, but we already know. What we don't know is the way it is. What newspapers and real journalists can and should do is give us the world.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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