Old Media Guy vs. New Media World

OK, so try reading the Pentagon Papers on that

Ok, I admit it; I’m an old media kind of guy (and no, I’m not referring to my age). But as I’ve chronicled before, most of us OM guys see the texting on the screen – new media is cleaning our collective clock.

Sort of.

Yes, NM gets all the attention and an increasing amount of the ad revenue. But when it comes to content, so much of the NM still relies on newspapers and other traditional outlets to get their info. Still, even folks with different perspectives agree the OM, and newspapers in particular, face tough times.

Two of those folks exchanged ideas last week at the UConn School of Law, part of a symposium sponsored by the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU. Full disclosure, which should not come as much of a surprise to any of the faithful readers of C?WC? I am a card-carrying member and have been for more than 20 years. And guess what? I’m proud of it. Sure, the ACLU pisses off a lot of people. Uh, good. Maybe those people needed to have their toes stomped. The bottom line is, the ACLU defends our First Amendment rights like nobody else, and I’m really glad its around.

Corporate lawyer

and Nation reporter--now who said what?

Robert Corn-Revere and John Nichols must have some good feelings  for the ACLU too, given their backgrounds and their presence at the symposium. Corn-Revere is a lawyer specializing in First Amendment Law.  Nichols is a journalist with admittedly leftist tendencies, and the co-author of The Death and Life of American Journalism. Some of the ideas from the book formed the crux of the debate, specifically his contention that government-subsidized media  would preserve newspapers as we have known them (and as some of us love them).

Some NM types might argue, Why bother? They had their day, their gone, history, old news. But both C-R and Nichols agree that traditional print journalism or in-depth television/radio reports still have important roles to play. Those media are the only ones with the financial wherewithal to conduct detailed investigative journalism, the kind that exposes corporate and government malfeasance. The kind that plays a part in preventing the rise of a plutocracy or an authoritarian state (tea baggers can stop reading now, since we obviously don’t see ourselves inhabiting the same planet.) But C-R thinks a government-subsidized press would be the end of a free press, while Nichols argues it could mean an even larger assortment of voices and sources of information.

Damn smug Swedes...

For evidence, Nichols points to international studies of the strength of various countries’ democratic practices and the freedom of their media. The Scandinavian nations generally score highest for the health of their democracies…and the Scandinavian countries also highly subsidize their media. Though that funding has not wiped out the commercial media; instead, the competition has forced for-profit papers to work harder to produce better news and win readers. And they do, and the Scandinavians benefit.

For the United States, Nichols proposes a $200-per-person tax credit. People could give the money to the non-profit news-gathering organizations of their choice. The companies would be able to afford journalists who do good reporting. The better for-profit outlets would find a way to adapt, compete, and survive. Voters, if they care, would have access to more useful information than ever before. They would make intelligent decisions and vote out bad leaders (in theory…) Our civic life, now teetering on anarchy, would be saved. Yea!

Well, not so fast, says Corn-Revere. To him, a greater federal role in journalism raises the fear of giving Congress or the Executive greater powers to manipulate the content. Either through laws or self-restraint, newspapers would be less able to fully exercise their First Amendment rights. In short, government money leads to strings. And history offers examples of the government trying to muzzle the media, with Nixon and his use of the IRS as just one example.

Can the New Media do this?

Nichols counters that public vigilance and the courts would keep the subsidized press free. Despite Nixon’s efforts, the Pentagon Papers came out, Deep Throat’s secrets hit the front page. And the commercial press will not be going away, and they will still have the freedoms (and limitations) they have now. The goal, Nichols believes, is to  ensure the financial stability the industry needs to do its key job: afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Of course, we could possibly avoid this if the New Media actually paid for the content it carried, rather than “borrowing” from the OM or giving writers paltry sums for their contributions. But in the New Media, everything is supposed to be free, free, free! It’s all out there, for everyone to use! Uh huh. (Just ignore the images I cop from other sites…) But somebody still has to dig though government records or travel with soldiers in the field or hound politicians for explanations of their misdeeds. Not too many bloggers have the time or training to do any of that well. Or the income stream that would let them do that work for free.

I am sympathetic to Nichols’ idea, but I see it going nowhere, especially in this cultural climate. The U.S. government and the American media don’t instill much confidence in a lot of people these days. Put them together in one project? It would be the Ishtar of legislative proposals. But Corn-Revere seems to have too much faith in the existing corporate media. Don’t let the “death of journalism” talk fool you. Plenty of the existing papers and media outlets still make money; they just have to cut unnecessary expenditures to do it. You know, like paying the reporters who actually generate the news.
Which leads to a dumbing and paring down of content that makes it harder for us to know our world.
So both sides agree the Old Media is hurting, at least as far as informing and improving social discourse, and the New Media has not yet stepped up to the plate. Add to the mix a public that wants all its content free and would rather watch American Idol than take an active interest in politics, and thinks Fox News, still, is “fair and balanced,” and we have some bad craziness afloat. That’s the big picture.

The little picture: I love newspapers. Always have. Still subscribe to two. Buy the local paper wherever I travel. 140 papers closed in 2009. They ain’t coming back.

That’s sad. But I’m just an Old Media guy showing his age.


~ by mburgan on April 20, 2010.

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