Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The News Business: changes, challenges.....and do we care?"

"In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind."
- Louis Pasteur

"Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for." - Lawrence Block

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny …'" Isaac Asimov

It's remarkable how plans sometimes come together, without being consciously planned.
Call it serendipity, I guess, but 2 blogs in a row on the topic of 'news' means that a rich vein of valuable discourse may have been discovered.
Maybe not a Mother Lode, mind you, but something definitely worth more digging into a bit deeper.

At the Bellingham City Club meeting at Northwood Hall today, this was the general topic addressed by a panel of four news professionals:

"What’s behind declining newspaper circulation and TV news audiences? And what does the future hold for traditional news outlets?"

Panel members who offered their views on the future of the news business included:

• Jack Keith, former city editor of the Bellingham Herald and now a member of the Journalism faculty at WWU;

• former Bellinghamite and now columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Joel Connelly;

• Mike Fancher, editor-at-large at the Seattle Times; and

• Glen Nardi, Bellingham Herald publisher

Each of these news pros offered interesting insights into what is going on in the news business, and why.

It would have been nice to have had this panel discussion recorded because most of responses to the questions posed were well spoken and thought out, but it is not my point to summarize this event with minutes.
Rather, a few observations and comments of my own are offered.

One thing all agreed upon was that we are in the midst of an era of massive change and challenge for the news business.
And, it is a business!
The news business is historically a very profitable one at that is now facing declining profits from declining traditional readers.
REMIND you of any other businesses? Auto manufacturing for example?

It seems to me that many businesses share that problem these days, particularly with industry consolidation, technological change and globalization occuring rapidly.
Suddenly, there are a plethora of new competitors, modes of access and exponentially expanded - and diverse- subject matter and categorization taking place.
Not only that, but challenges of trust, ideological preference, interest and time to absorb everything that is offered.

Almost like a miniature 'Big Bang' Theory scenario, change is happening so quickly with the 'news' business that we humans are being challenged in real time to accept and come to grips with it.

One panelist described the situation as addressing infinite possibilities with finite resources, which seemed to fit.

Another talked about the news business taking on the character of a portfolio of products ranging from targeted magazines to newspapers to Internet based products. The latter products have been particularly difficult to find ways of making profitable.

A question from the audience related to combining available information from multiple sources at one common access point.
Maybe links to government data bases, sports, international news, national issues and the like from a local news source?

Another question went to what is the main point of news; is it to inform or entertain?
If it is to entertain and gain readership, is it really 'news'?
Good question!

Throughout the discussion was woven the essential theme of credibility, upon which 'hard' or fact-based news must be based before opinions are drawn. Also, that concept of credibility is inextricably linked to the concept of 'quality'.
That is just another way of saying trust remains very important!
Difficult to gain, easy to lose!

That is the quintessential quality control dilemma - how to maintain a consistent level of news coverage that is credible to any reasonably objective person.
And, it applies to more things than just the 'news'!
Government maybe?

One last thought: When considering any venture I have come to believe that the classic 3-legged stool analogy applies.

• Economics

• Ecology

• Social Equity

In this context, should the 'news industry' be any different from any other business?

Doesn't a benefit to the common good matter, especially in a democracy?
If so, how can this be assured?

Doesn't the 'news' being fair, reasonably complete and placed in proper context and perspective matter?
If so, how can this be accomplished with consistency?

When these two questions are being answered as consistently as the profitablility question, we may be on the right track toward consistent and reliable 'news' reporting.

Why not get those questions answered before allowing the FCC to give away any more of our airwaves?
Or, allowing the Rupert Murdochs, et al to further monopolize corporate media?
Or, allowing ANY single owner to dominate the media of any locality?
Or, allowing Congress -any Congress- to abrogate our First Amendment rights?
Think about it.

But, that's just my opinion.

"In reality, serendipity accounts for one percent of the blessings we receive in life, work and love. The other 99 percent is due to our efforts."
-Peter McWilliams

"Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter."- Julius Comroe Jr.

"Serendipity is putting a quarter in the gumball machine and having three pieces come rattling out instead of one—all red." Peter H. Reynolds

"--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously.
- John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

Serendip (also Serendib) is the old Persian name for Sri Lanka.