Sunday, December 04, 2005

Another Spin in the Death Spiral

Peg Phillip mentioned it on her blog this week, but today Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck made it official. More reader-created content is coming to the daily.

Note that I didn't call it "citizen journalism." That's because it's not what is going to happen. CJ is when readers and members of the community are given pretty free reign to write and contribute to the paper. What the CA is proposing is just more of what they've been doing. Let's go through the Peck-itorial and see what I'm talking about.
Walking out of Malco's Studio on the Square a few nights ago I overheard a teenager say this about Johnny Cash:

''No, I think he was a real person. I think my grandmother listened to him!'' she exclaimed to a skeptical movie mate who wasn't quite sure if The Man in Black was real, or when he allegedly was so famous.

I wanted to stop and say: He was real! His story is real! The life lessons of ''Walk the Line'' are more profound than Harry Potter!

A tug on the sleeve saved me from myself. And Potter fans, rest easy. I liked ''Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,'' too.
Notice his position in this little tale. The ignorant public. His authoritative knowledge. The desire to straighten someone out. He wanted to give an opinion while he was at it, one which set one thing above another. Remember this.

He goes on to talk about reviewers at the paper.
That's reviewing.

John Beifuss doesn't ask my permission to opine about movies as he sees them.

Nor do our food writers, or music reviewers, or dance critics.
He's talking reviewers, not reporters here. Remember that, too. This is all about opinion, not fact-based reporting.

Now, why the local daily for a mid-sized Southern community has a dance reviewer or a classical music reviewer or a theater critic is a mystery to me. It's something to do with high and low culture. The number of people who attend all the city's dance recitals, classical music performances and theater shows in any given week is likely a lot smaller than the number of people who bowl, but they are also more likely to buy a newspaper, so I guess they must be served.

On the other hand, the CA did boot Frederic Koeppel. He was an absolute and ossified elitist whose arthritic view of culture poisoned the "arts" pages for years. Koeppel was like an avatar for some lost, dead view of the "cultural elite." The paper is still bad about reviewing only fiction books that maybe will sell a couple of dozen copies, maybe (so is the Memphis Flyer; witness their recent books issue), rather than more popular titles, or even non-fiction not related to fiction.

Ah... I digress. Back to the topic at hand.

Peck goes on about reviewing, and differing opinions before landing on the First Amendment.
Opinion, in fact, underscores what the First Amendment is all about.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison weren't thinking about reviewing ''Walk the Line'' when they wrote that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech, but these Founding Fathers most assuredly were defending the right of people with different opinions to speak out without fear of retribution.
Well... the Founding Fathers were more concerned with political and religious speech, which were often the same thing in England at that time. America was filling up with religious dissidents from England and Europe. Dissenting from the Crown could land you in jail, find you stripped of your property and possessions, banished or even killed. Trying to argue with a government that was inclined to imprison and execute dissenters, and could easily do it, led to a desire to rein in that power for any government.
If anything, newspapers and other media need to generate more discussion, open up more space and time for dissenting and opposing views.

Letters to the editor are one way of doing that. Online reader feedback is another.
Notice no mention of the paper's web forum (where employees of the paper do not participate) or their blogs. (Or is that how Peck sees the website? As a big talkback?) Notice who controls this discussion -- the paper's editors, who decide which letters to run or whether and how to answer "online reader feedback," whatever that is.
The growth in citizen-driven reviews of everything from cars to movies to men worth dating suggests that the power of citizen opinion is becoming stronger with introduction and access to more and more digital tools that allow people to link up and share ideas. If legacy media don't make room for more voices, more citizen opinion, more of a conversation about the events of the day, New Media will simply work around those barriers and create forums for opinion in other venues.
I'm not at all clear what "citizen-driven reviews" means. Is that some shorthand for "the Web?" Or "blogs?" It seems that way when he later uses terms like "legacy media" and "New Media."

The "power of citizen opinion" has always been strong, it's just that papers in the last few decades have been able to suppress and redirect it. The 'Net has already shattered the Mainstream Media's control of the national (and regional and local) debate. They were the "barriers" Peck writes about.

But again, notice that for Peck this is all about opinion, not fact. He's been very careful to only talk about people's opinions, not on people doing their own reporting, or criticising the reporting done by the "legacy media." Can you see where this is headed yet?
At the newspaper we are looking for ways to make it easier for diverse opinions to be shared among our readers and online users. In 2006 we're going to look for ways to gather more opinions, more commentary, more shared expertise online and in print.
The paper already does this in their "Appeal" sections, where a lot of the content is written by members of the community.

It's a mixed success. The "talk of the coffeeshop" columnists were as prone to use their columns to promote their own pet causes as to report what their customers were saying. Businesses frequently turned in press releases which went directly to print. (I'm told this also happens frequently in the Business section.)

What all this lacks is fact-based reporting of events or actions or conditions in Memphis many neighborhoods. Not stories about local neighborhood association meetings or the latest hoity-toity parties, but stories about rip-off businesses or bad landlords or street conditions or the neighborhood-busting activities of large businesses.

But notice that it's opinion and commentary. He finally mentions "shared expertise" but that brings me to my point. Who will decide whom to ask? Who will choose what to print? If something really cool comes over the transom or into the email Inbox, does it see print?

That's what is going to happen. It's not so much that the CA wants more discussion as that they want more content. And they want to stay firmly in control of what sees print. How often have you seen the paper print guest editorials, along with stories, about a topic, but the number of editorials that agree with the paper's position is larger than the number that disagree? Where are the guest columns that take to task those writers or the CA's reporters and editors?
'm confident our own reviewers will continue to be authoritative and informed voices. Their ideas, their perspectives will need to be tested against all comers.

I think that's the way it should be.

In our nation, the competition of ideas, not the monolithic imposition of one institution's view over all others, allows us the opportunity to be the most informed, persuasive and creative society on Earth.
Apparently, the "competition of ideas" doesn't extend to analysis of the stories they create or publish, nor to independent reporting from the community.

Peck is on a fool's errand, trying to open the doors to the milling crowds outside while keeping guard on who comes through into his precious paper. The reporting and editorial stuff will stay firmly in the hands of the elite, those trained professionals who undergo thorough training in reporting and writing, who have expertise in the subjects they cover, are rigorously overseen, and can maintain the high standards of "fair, objective and neutral."


I predict the result will be more of the fluffstuff that's been creeping into the paper. More "commentary" will replace hard reporting. More "experts," chosen by the CA on the basis of their idea of who is best to speak on these things, will appear. For all his talk in the column of dissenters, you won't be seeing the outsiders and dissenters of Memphis appearing more frequently. It will be more by more of the usual suspects in the Memphis civic and poltical bureaucracy.

Rather than investigating and dissecting these people, which is the paper's job, or giving room to those who will do that, the CA will be giving them an expanded forum. Filling up their pages with the inanity of daily trivia, rather than telling us what we cannot learn without someone powerful doing the asking.

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