The Felt Factor

With all this talk of sustainable communities, how come we tend to exclude, at least in conversation, the very thing that can educate community members: the media?

Would it be fair to say that in addition to a media outlet’s obvious muckraking and investigative reporting responsibilities, that the pure dissemination of information through objective reporting, investigative and otherwise, is needed in a healthy community? A community newspaper tells us when the garbage comes, if municipal offices or post offices are closed on a certain holiday, and when your friendly non-profit community development organization that manages the downtown business district is hosting a farmers market or holiday festivities.

Is there a reason why large print media outlets are failing, but local, independent media, as well as larger, independent blogs, are thriving? It’s pretty simple — online is free, up-to-date, and hasn’t spent the last 15 or so years effectively beating itself to a pulp in a desperate refusal to acknowledge a changing industry.

With the death of Deep Throat, also known as W. Mark Felt, I feel compelled to revisit this particular role of the media.

Everybody should read All The President’s Men, of course. It’s a great American story. It’s about abuses of the executive branch and the breathtaking importance of a free press. In those days, stories were broken in the morning and modified or updated in the days to come. Woodward and Bernstein broke that story, and the country, though it might not have been known at the time, was better for their reporting.

Consider them the muckraking bloggers of their time.

Now, since there are so many news sources, it’s tougher to know who to trust and who’s spewing propaganda. Also troubling is that people tend to watch news based on their preference for delivery of the news. Olbermann is lefty news and basically reports what the better blogs reported 36 hours ago, Hannity is righty news, reporting God-knows-what. This doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well.

Having a choice in acquiring information is one of the great things about this country, but the fact that the 24-hour news cycle allows people to watch only the news that they agree with is dangerous, because, as we see repeatedly with some news organizations, particularly FOXNews, this results in opinion or conjecture presented as legitimate news.

Fine, you can dismiss all these news options as an embarrassment of riches. It’s a testament to the success of the country’s commitment to a free press that we have so many news outlets. That’s an argument I could listen to — but what happens when the information sources dry up. What’s going on in Detroit right now presents some potentially dangerous, even frightening prospects.

Twelve years after the Detroit Free Press introduced its online version, the paper, in the face of a news print industry in peril, is cutting back on its print version, delivering to home subscribers on only Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays — the editions that contain the heaviest advertising and that are the most popular for readers, according to the December 16, 2008 article that I, natch, read online.

What does this mean for Detroit — the country’s 11th most-populated city? What does it mean for a city that only has two major newspapers? Granted, the Freep will still be available daily at newsstands, but how will this move alter the community’s awareness of goings-on around the city? Just as important: will this change the behavior of municipal government? Will the powers-that-be remain “in check” by an online watchdog? That’s yet to be seen, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Detroit is obviously home to the “Big Three” automakers: Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford, and the local economy is guaranteed to get worse. Growing unemployment, crime, and a third of the residents falling below the poverty line continue to be problems for the city. Not to mention a former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, now resigned charged with eight felonies before pleading to lesser charges. What would have happened with the mayor had the local papers not been covering the story? It’s anybody’s guess, really.

Of course, it’s not just Detroit. The ramifications of failing newspapers are manifesting themselves throughout the country. In Washington, DC, reports of diminished resources is now resulting in less coverage of capital affairs. The New York Times reports that Washington bureaus of newspapers around the country are cutting back. Whither the coverage? Will this result in a news coverage vacuum? Will government take advantage? Again, it’s anybody’s guess.

But we do have the blogs, who, like Woodward and Bernstein, conduct their business on limited resources, good old-fashioned reporting, and real commitment to breaking the story. The blogosphere is certainly the future (and the present, really) of quality, investigative journalism and muckracking. I think Deep Throat would like the news online.

Update

You might have seen Paul Mulshine’s opinion piece, “All I Wanted for Christmas Was a Newspaper,” published in The Wall Street Journal, that basically — and unintentionally — illustrates in 20 column inches why print media will continue to decline as long as print media resists e-news. Mulshine makes the no-brainer point that blogs and other online news sources don’t send paid reporters to the school board meetings, city council meetings, etc. Fair point, but some of the better blogs with cash flow do have paid reporters, and those are the news sources that are really ahead of the game. Considering The Star-Ledger’s financial woes, Mulshine really ought to start moving away from the “our-news-is-the-best-news” mentality.

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