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Media Tue Jan 26 2010

Why Can't We Be Friends?

I wrote previously on this blog about the state of media in Chicago, specifically that branch of journalism that goes by so many names which I shall call public accountability journalism (see last section). With traditional media in the state of disrepair it finds itself, the civic-minded are in a fit over what will become of their beloved citizen watchdog.

My previous comments pointed the way to some exciting new ventures trying to fill that void in Chicago, a motley group of start-ups with interesting but uncertain business models. But there is another sublimity to the forsaken print newspaper that has to a debatable degree been lost in the bifurcated world of online media and it's seeming preference for niche publication. This idea, which is far from new or my own, I'll call the General Reader Principle.

The GRP could be stated as such: An indispensable benefit is to be gained by a society whose citizens read widely on a variety of topics outside of their own narrow interests.

The newspaper used to put on the front page for the town a variety of cover stories. Sure, it's a top-down approach in dictating what is "important," up to a small group of editors, but it nonetheless had the ability to inform the goo-goo's that there's a world outside of politics--for instance, that a new discovery of relevance to the city and perhaps the world was just made at FermiLab--or to inform the University of Chicago Physics professor that his alderman used public money for private gain.

But there's more. Those who used to buy the paper simply for the sports or style page paid for the watchdog function as well, both with the cost of the paper and the larger readership that boosted ad revenue. Those accountability journalism groups searching high and low for funding are coming face to face with a harsh reality: most people don't care about that stuff unless an editor smacks them in the face with a front page story.

I don't want this to be taken as a rant about "the good old days," or a "you'll miss me when I'm gone" beseeching by a crusty old newspaperman. It is simply to say, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Newspapers served the institutions of American democracy well for the past couple hundred years; though they have much to learn, they must have done some things right.

Perhaps what we need is some collaboration--having style, music, sports and news sites and blogs work together either on joint platforms or through some sort of media cooperative. The sites are out there, they ought to work together (say having this, this, this and this share a home page, split into their respective "sections." The editorial process rightfully should be outsourced, with the crowd deciding what makes the front page via some most-viewed or most-linked-to google-like algorithm.)

For the purposes of those entertainment and special interest sites and blogs there is little to be gained--they tend to be fairing better--save for the intangible civic value. But if we work in concert, revenue could be distributed for the public benefit of accountability journalism, like--dare I say it--the good old days.

So what do you think? Am I just trying to put the print newspaper online? Am I just reinventing WBEZ or the Reader? Discuss.

In the end, I think, the watchdogs may need to recognize that they can't do it without the style section, the style section that they ought not to do it without the public accountability section.

 
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