The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
How was I to know 10 years ago that we would end up where we are now?
I was living in Alexandria, Virginia working for States News Service and free-lancing as a reporter for the likes of Time magazine covering stories related to the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal and stories like the funeral of Ronald Reagan for newspapers such as the Wisconsin State Journal.
It was a stressful time in the nation’s capital district as the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq raged on in what appeared to be a never ending civil war. The U.S. security apparatus was still on high alert in the wake of 9/11.
But according to a highlight list of news stories from that year by Wikipedia, Facebook launched in February of 2004.
By November, Republican incumbent President George W. Bush was declared the winner over his Democratic challenger, U.S. Senator John F. Kerry, following a disputed recount in the state of Ohio.
By the winter of 2005, I was back in my home town of Birmingham covering the trial of HealthSouth’s Richard Scrushy for the New York Times, but I had an idea for a new kind of news site on the Web I wanted to try.
We launched The Locust Fork News-Journal, then mainly an html news links page where I chased the headlines manually and linked to the big news of the day from the big newspapers and wire services. But blogging software had come along so I started to “blog” like a lot of other writers in those days.
As a long-time journalist and academic involved in media research and teaching, I never really liked the idea of a blog per se. I thought the term itself might diminish respect for the craft of journalism, and I knew this phenomenon would have an affect on the economy for news.
But I delivered one guest lecture at the University of Alabama back then that made the case for blogging software and publishing on the Web. The technology made archiving stories easier where people using search engines could find them. And let’s face it. Publishing yourself on the Web allowed for far more freedom of thought than working for a corporate chain newspaper where editors in New York, Washington, Boston, Dallas or even Birmingham had a strong hand in shaping the stories and what got covered and how.
Then more than ever before, the reporter-writer had the power to decide what stories deserved coverage — and how to cover them. The problem then — and the problem still — is how to fund the actual work. Most bloggers then — and now — are free to voice any wild opinion they have and publish it on the Web. But most bloggers are still depending on mainstream news outlets and wire services for on-the-ground coverage to provide at least some of the facts about what’s going on. So they provide a link to a news story and then voice an opinion, often in what is called a “snarky” tone.
After the Bush Great Recession hit the bottom lines of newspapers in 2007-2009, there was great hand-wringing over how they could survive to make a profit. Newhouse papers, for example, like the Birmingham News in my home town, ultimately decided they could no longer afford to pay big money to publishers and editors or even veteran reporters. So they fired them all, put their new buildings up for sale, stopped publishing daily and hired kid bloggers for cheap. So now you get snarky blogging on a news site owned by a news corporation instead of actual reporting.
I understand that this new blog style became popular with readers in the past 10 years, but what has it given us in the way of actual public affairs journalism to count on for the future? The reason newspapers long enjoyed special rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was because of their charge to cover public affairs.
But take a look at the front of just about any corporate chain newspaper Website now, or blog, and what do you find? Celebrity gossip, sensational crime, coverage of sports as if games were the most important news around, “entertainment” and local public relations that passes for news.
Social networking programs like Facebook and Twitter worked for awhile from about 2009-2012 where readers could follow their favorite news organizations’ news links. But since Facebook went public in 2012, the so-called news feed has turned what passes for news itself into such a joke that it is now made fun of on a routine basis by the likes of Jimmy Fallon, who recently took over hosting the Tonight Show from Jay Leno.
I get it that people would rather like and share something you can laugh at like stupid cat videos than to wade into a serious topic like war in the Mid-East. Diversionary stories that distract peoples’ attention from serious problems and the need for government are also in the best interest of big corporate advertisers who have long been the primary source of funding for newspapers and television news stations. Like mana for the masses from on high, the funny fodder keeps people coming back for the fun of it.
Could it be that it also keeps them from rising up to fight injustice or staging another sit in, like they did in the 1960s, and again during the days of the Occupy movement, which now seems so long ago and far away?
Who is going to figure out a way to fund the serious journalism we need to chart a potentially better future for ourselves? Will it be Aljazeera?
When I first started The Locust Fork News-Journal, oh so long ago, I had a conversation with one woman on the Southside of Birmingham who desperately wanted to be an activist and figure out how to make a difference, to be a part of something, a community, back when the war in Iraq was the big news. I tried to explain some things to her and one of the things I said went something like this.
One of the problems with starting something entirely new in a place that is so rooted in the past and behind the times like the South is that I will spend some part of just about every day trying to explain how this stuff works to people who don’t understand and probably never will. Most people don’t want to learn anyway. They just want to go on doing things the way they always have.
But if things are not working, isn’t that a form of collective insanity?
Shouldn’t society reward at least a few people who dare to do things differently?
Do you not think that if I really wanted to, I could easily get a job working for one of these so-called news organizations that still pay reporters a little bit — and then control what you cover and write? Even in the face of the wide open nature of publishing on the World Wide Web, the lame stream newspapers, radio and television news stations still treat people like total fools who will lap up their meanderings as if they really mattered.
Of course a lot of people are fools who still get their news from small time papers like the Prattville Progress, where the big news of the day, according to its Facebook page, is all about how an overturned truck caused a little traffic delay.
Or, the top story on al.com is about how Auburn’s new sophomore quarterback will not start in the season opener after being busted for possession of marijuana.
All while state’s across the country are legalizing the weed, something a majority of Americans support.
I’m not saying local news is not important, nor am I saying newspaper reporters should not cover sports. If people are interested and you can build an economy around it — and an economy to pay for coverage of big news and public affairs — that’s great. The big chain papers made a fortune doing just this for their New York publishers from the 1960s through the 1990s. But not so much anymore.
What I see happening is this. If the social networking algorithm, judging news as what people like and share, takes over from the pencil pushers of old who bullied newspaper editors into covering some of the nonsense I had to cover back when I worked for newspapers, because it was supposedly the news people “wanted” as opposed to the news they “needed,” then the jig is up. We may as well fold our tents as a country and let China take over and show us how to keep an economy going with cheap sweat shop labor.
There have always been rich people who were willing to write for free. Now on the Web, even poor people can write for free.
The question people should be asking themselves is this: Is all this free and cheap writing really getting the job done? Are we getting better as a country? Or are things simply going to continue getting worse?
According to the latest Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans think things are only going to get worse, while only 35 percent expect things to get better.
I can run public opinion stories and rewrite press releases all day long for cheap like newspapers have always done it.
But if you want to see more field journalism that actually makes a difference, then somebody is going to have to pay for it. And that “somebody” is not going to be the likes of BP, Southern Company, or the Methane Gas Association, which now underwrites public radio to make sure its point of view gets covered in radio news.
If unions, non-profit environmental organizations, trial lawyers and yes Democrats are not willing to get in the game with image advertising of their own and stand up to the anti-union, polluting corporations and the Republican candidates they buy and promote, what do you think will become of American democracy?
Over the past 10 years, staying in the suburbs of Birmingham for much of that time caring for an aging relative, I have watched a lot of movies on cable television. Thinking that film is the mass medium of the future for getting a big message out, I have studied the techniques of movie making, all while learning how to produce news videos of my own. I plan to find a way to get more involved in making films in the future.
But those days of sitting around on my ass watching cable TV are about to come to an end. I have concluded that cable television is a big ripoff. They charge way too much for the limited offerings and show the same crap over, and over, and over again. I am sick of it and will be moving on over the next few weeks.
But one of the last movies I will watch on cable just happened to be about hit men, one of them played by Brad Pitt, called Killing Them Softly.
Standing at a bar watching President Barack Obama on television in his first inaugural address talk about the U.S. being a nation of “one people,” Pitt’s character had this to say. Perhaps his cynicism is right on.
“Don’t make me laugh. This is America. In America, you are on your own. There is no community. It is one big business. So f___ing pay me.”
I hate to cave into the cynicism. I feel like allot of progress has been made over the past 10 years. But if you want me to keep putting my own neck on the line to keep creating a better news organization, we are going to have to ramp up our ability to pay more people to do this right.
But hey, if you are happy with sharing stupid cat videos on Facebook, go for it and watch the world go to hell. Or if all you’re interested in is keeping up with the Southeastern Conference football, hey Paul Finebaum has a new show on the SEC Network, proving the old adage that goofy shit sells.
You think I won’t play this stupid game if I have to, to survive? Think again.
© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.