published Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Griscom: Change not equal to death


by Tom Griscom

A recent visitor asked how people will separate fact from fiction if newspapers die.

The initial response is that newspapers are not dying. They are transforming to meet the expectations of consumers, technology and the economy.

A deeper reflection brings back a comment at a recent news editors meeting in Washington: What matters is the survival of journalism, not the means of delivery. Some who have chosen the print-oriented branch of that profession may disagree, but that is a roadblock that resists adapting to changes in consumption of news.

If the focus is on good journalism and not solely on the myriad of media platforms, consumers will follow.

The “death” question was prompted by the explosion of single-sourced Internet blogs that opened the boundaries of the First Amendment but have no measurable accuracy scale.

This broad characterization relates more to those who opine on the political state of play, having decided the more outrageous the comment or accusation, the better the pick-up on the digital superhighway.

This country has traversed media landscapes in the past that are distant cousins to forms of information sharing now. For those interested in knowing more, search the term “muckraker.” President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with attaching the term to journalists, their investigative writings and social upheaval.

Or the penny press from the 1900s may be a better comparison to current media trends, when tabloid newspapers, published as competitors to more traditional news products, cost 1 cent and targeted the working class. Gone was the day when newspapers were only for those in upper-income brackets, and the content at the time followed the value — down — but a new market opportunity was filled.

Regardless, the transition that is occurring among traditional media forms — newspapers and broadcast outlets — raises a challenge of whether to follow popular trends or build on legacy platforms.

At times the debate swirling around the media world has the tones of the political discussion in Washington that is tugging the country from one extreme to the other.

There is little middle ground in the body politic today as the partisan factions wrestle for the tip of the pin, with the slightest tilt left or right pushing the opponent off. A small space and in most instances, a small accomplishment as well.

Giving ground or, in the case of newspapers, taking away the news hole as has happened in many instances, allows those with the loudest megaphone to drown out any opposition or alternative point of view because of lack of space.

Does the courage exist to buck the trend of news as a free commodity and move into a more speculative environment of “pay to play” for unique content?

The initial adopters will be fewer than those who freely graze along now, dancing from Internet site to Internet site more out of curiosity than commitment.

Perhaps a starting point is this advice:

First, share bonds with the community.

Second, get caught embracing your community.

That does not mean to go soft, become a cheerleader and look the other way.

It does mean to engage in community, however it is defined. Avoid the laissez-faire approach of being merely a pass-through observer and recorder of events. With the appropriate balance, be an integral piece of the community fabric. Be the public’s watchdog and be willing to ask others to help you know and learn more.

There may yet be breath in media that some would prematurely pronounce dead.

To reach Tom Griscom, call 423-757-6472 or e-mail tgriscom@timesfreepress.com.

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