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Fighting Information Suffocation

10/28/2009

When the New York Times announced, on October 19, staff cuts of 100 in the news room, an information chill reverberated from Manhattan. A reduction of 8 percent of the news staff is a deep wound for those who seek truth. Last year 100 other news staffers at the Times were cut. What will next year bring? The journalistic icon is not alone. Last year alone, reports National Public Radio, American newsrooms lost approximately 5,900 jobs. That is a disaster.

We all know the reasons for tight news budgets…decreasing advertising revenue, competing free web content, and high newspaper delivery costs. No matter what the reasons, the forced Jenny Craig diet hitting newsrooms across the nation is resulting in enhanced national ignorance.  And what’s worse, we, the news consumers, are letting it happen, as if we have no part to play in finding a viable solution in the delivery and consumption of news. News flash: It’s not just news editors and media owners who have to figure out how to keep a healthy press, the burden is just as much on the readers. You, me and our neighbors.

Newspaper circulation is not the only problem. As CNN’s ratings recently fell to abysmal levels in prime time, we all should worry. Arguably the hardest working anchor on television, Anderson Cooper, should not be seen by a mere 211,000 viewers per night, as reported by the Times on October 27. There are over 305 million people in the United States. That only a couple hundred thousand are viewing the most aggressively produced news program on the tube is not only eye opening, but scary. In the case of CNN’s prime time ratings, the issue is a lack of curiosity in an age of blog mania…not just economics. The American news audience has been sucked into a state of complacency…and believes that entertainment and opinion is a legitimate substitute for cold, blunt news. As a result, programs like 360 lack substantial viewers.

Whether it be in print or on television, the conveyance of genuine information is being suffocated by technology, economics and inattention by the consumer.

With all the available media choices, we are vastly uninformed about the facts that make up the news, but over-infused with opinion. “Cable news” is not that at all…it has morphed into “Cable Opinion.” American media has been hyper-opinionized with pundits, in large part due to constrained budgets that try to make up for loss of reporting talent and resources. In order to get audiences, conflict among talking heads has been emphasized at the expense of reporting.

We need hard news and the resources to know what is happening in our frenetic world. Good journalism requires the researchers, the investigators, the reporters, the people that verify information, go to the story, smoke it out and do the hard and often dangerous labor to find and report the facts.  A free and informed nation cannot claim to know what is going on when news which is presented as mere analysis and spin. We have enough opinions to deal with per capita. Everyone is an expert these days…and the more we hear, the less we know if we don’t have a wide range of objective news sources to decide issues and options for ourselves.

Media economics and consumer inattention is slowly suffocating the stream of information that reaches our households, and we get less and less input. The inevitable result…we will know less about our world, our government, our health, our science, our arts and…well, our everything.

 

Cutting staffers in the Times is disturbing not only because it demonstrates a great newspaper in decline, but it is, along with the Wall Street Journal, one of the only major news operations that has the global scale and resources to investigate and gather the news. Similarly, the decline of Ted Turner’s original model for transmitting news by cable and the low numbers on CNN are almost inexplicable given the moderate majority in the United States.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of assignment editors in media land who wish they could assign a team for months at a time to dig, probe, seek and ultimately publish detailed pieces that will improve our understanding of present day, but are frustrated because they cannot devote sufficient resources to such an effort. As newspapers get thinner and contain less and less content, we are confronted with knowledge disconnect. We think we know what is going on by reading news aggregators, but as credible reporting and sources diminish or disappear, there is less content to collect and re-distribute. As we lead our busy lives, what we don’t read we may not know.

News consumer, it’s time to stand up and be heard. We must be a part of the solution.  It starts with the New York Times. NYT…Don’t make that next round of staff cuts. The more you trim your news operation, the more you accelerate diminished credibility.

If you have to, charge for the free content provided by the Gray Lady on the I-Phone. Follow the example of the Wall Street Journal and seek payment for premium content on the web. Develop a micro payment system for readers on the internet. For those that use the free NewYorkTimes.com site, support the paper by paying the $165 a year for the amazing Times Reader service. (It’s the best and easiet fusion of newspapers and new media, with the traditional newspaper look, that’s out there right now).

Around the nation, those concerned with threats to the media should have community meetings with news executives to brainstorm for financial solutions which will keep media on track to providing true information.

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We should not have to rely on a Mexican billionaire to bail out the Times, we should do it ourselves. For those of you that dislike the Times, and favor more conservative voices, keep in mind…your paper may be, and probably is, next to cut resources. Inaction on the consumer front is no longer an option, no matter what newspaper you favor. Let’s fully explore and debate what the concept of non-profit news organizations means to journalism. We should examine membership fund raising drives akin to the model of National Public Radio and its stations. There are probably hundreds of thousands of people who would agree to pay a membership fee to support the Times, the Journal and other newspapers in exchange for exclusive services heretofore not offered on the web. 

Here’s another idea…invest in stock of media companies to boost their capital reserves and investments and become part owners of the very institutions we rely upon to inform us. Perhaps mutual funds devoted solely to investments in media outlets should be created, so readers can have a personal stake in journalism through an easy investment vehicle.

Finally, let’s start educating our children and young adults about the difference between opinion and fact. Every high school and college graduate should be able to take, and complete, a course about the meaning of genuine journalism and its importance to society. We should infuse curiosity into our national consciousness. We don’t do enough of that with traditional teaching methods.

As consumers we cannot always receive but fail to reciprocate. Now is the time to stand up, economically and consciously, or one day, the news we get will be worthless, lacking in detail and scope…a mere reflection of a disinterested America.

In case you have not read it, we are well down that path in 2009.

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For more on this topic, see the Sunday Morning CBS News presentation, “Stopping the Presses For Good” on our sister site, SharedEmergency.com, reported by Jeff Greenfield. (Broadcast April, 2009).

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