Leave It To Marketplace….

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 11:38 am

Caught another fascinating article on my favorite evening-soak listening, American Public Media’s Marketplace. This was a look at the evolution of the newspaper. It is no news whatsoever to most of you that the American newspaper industry is in decline. Speaking personally, I am probably not the best person to be charged with the observation of this phenom: I have never had a subscription to a newspaper. By the time I was of an age where I was emotionally and financially prepared to give much of a shit about the day-to-day workings of the world, I already had a subscription to an Internet Service Provider (okay, America Online….gotta start somewhere) and was getting my regular dose of current events through the wire. To be frank, I don’t think I would have ever cleaved to a newspaper as a source of information, for one simple reason: they get my hands dirty. There is simply no excuse in this day and age for a medium that is so unwelcomely interactive. I want the daily news to leave its mark on me in an intellectual and emotional fashion, not physical. Imagine how small the viewing audience for television would be if the radiation emanating from the cathode tube inadvertently singed your drapes every time you turned it on (okay, so I’d probably still watch Ghost Hunters and the new season of Dexter, but that’s it).

Anyway, back to Marketplace. The article followed the recent innovations of a community newspaper in suburban New York, the Journal News. The JN has been going to great lengths to solicit reader input on the types of stories in which their readership are truly interested, and also the form which those stories should take. As a result, they have greatly expanded their offerings. The paper publishes a couple of glossy magazines, runs a blog, produces short videos and a television program. They offer podcasts, content for mobile devices, and online discussion boards. In short, they are doing anything and everything they can to attract and retain their reader base, and so far it seems to be working.

I’m having all kinds of trouble trying to decide what I think of this.

On one hand, if there’s one thing about this trend that truly appeals to me, it’s the idea of making the news as local, as personal as possible. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to make the assertion that the pool of information at mankind’s disposal has far outstripped our ability to process it. My very existence as a modern First World human is defined in large part by a continuous act of mediation and filtration. In this light, a local paper that follows every baseball game and high-school graduation—in addition to covering the “harder” news of note—can really help to ground the reader, to put everything in context. And as the saying goes, though one must think globally it is best to act locally. (I always liked Zippy the Pinhead’s rendition of this well-worn aphorism: “Think global, act loco.”) While we should all be expected to behave as though our actions have consequences the world over, it’s also practically axiomatic that our efforts are expended to greatest effect in our own community. From random kindnesses to charitable donations, it is when we brighten the corner where we are that we are often generating the greatest impact.

To that end, keeping in tune with the day-to-day life in our own community is a good thing. Having a local newspaper that makes the job easier through blogs, podcasts, video and print content is even better.

On the other hand, what the Journal News is doing might be seen as pandering. They take the pulse of the reading public and provide content based on the feedback they receive. This kind of responsiveness can be a real benefit….unless it turns out that what the public wants is an “Inside Edition”-style melange of celebrity gossip, perp walks and bikini-wax exposes. Fortunately that doesn’t seems to be what the fine citizens of the Hudson Valley want out of their local media, judging by the web site. Good thing too. The Journal News being a Gannett publication, were the local market to demand such coarse fodder, I have little doubt that they would be forced by their corporate masters to serve it up with a smile.

But it would seem only reasonable to assert that news, like nourishment of the body, may not always take a form towards which one might naturally gravitate. Just as my parents knew better than to let me dictate the content of my meals (and I thank the Devices in retrospect that they did not. I’m already an overweight diabetic with a bad back; I shudder to think what I’d look like today if I had been allowed to subsist on a diet of Redondo’s Hawaiian Winners and Freakies Cereal), perhaps the news media ought take it upon itself to elevate the menu, as it were. Give us the good stuff we really should be using to feed our heads, and the roughage we so desperately need to clear out the—well, let’s face it—the crap. A harmless tasty treat is a fine thing—reading Fark, say, or leafing through a People Magazine while waiting for the oral hygienist to call you in for your biannual plaque-blasting—but just as in the realm of the body, a diet of nothing but mind Twinkies is no good way to lead your life.

So there is a real potential drawback to appealing to the lowest common denominator in deciding on the content of one’s media….unless of course your community’s lowest common denominator is so far above the national average as to make it neither by comparison. As with everything, it’s necessary to maintain a balancing act, and I think I will be watching both local and national media just a hair more closely now, to see how they manage the tightrope.

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