Discovering Something Important About Government
C.S. Lewis reportedly once said that he didn’t read the newspapers, claiming that if something important happened, someone would tell him. The recent news about bankruptcies, layoffs and proposed closings in the newspaper industry illustrates that perhaps he isn’t the only one with such an approach to the news.
Indeed, I first heard about the Journal Register’s bankruptcy filing via Twitter. I heard about the Hearst corporations threat to shut down the San Francisco Chronicle on NPR, and when Mark Pazniokas was let go from the Hartford Courant, I heard about it first via an Instant Message, with a message on Facebook following quickly after.
In my case, if I’m at my computer when I hear news like this, I start searching for various stories about it, typically starting at CT News Junkie and the New Haven Independent, and then supplementing my information with opinions from people at CT Local Politics and MyLeftNutmeg. All of this remains paperless.
This brings up an important question. Who determines what is important? What is newsworthy? Years ago, Walter Cronkite was our most trusted source of information and the New York Times gave us all the news that was fit to print.
Reporters find what they thought was important and try to get their editors to run the stories. People like Mark Pazniokas had in depth knowledge of what was going on at the Capitol and could pick out what was important and what was nothing new. Papers even had people trained in investigative reporting, that would spend countless hours digging deep into the hidden and underlying information of a story. Now, the last vestiges of these skills are being slept away.
At the same time, we have a new President in Washington who is vowing transparency. Yet as volumes of information about our government and our spending gets made public, who will sort through all of it to find something important?
One possibility is that we will return to a way of information gathering that existed before newspapers tried to appear objective, when they were the mouthpieces of partisan groups. When I think of the information I’ve received about Gov. Rell’s proposed budget, most of it has come from groups with very clear objectives. They don’t want to see funding for good education, clean energy or clean elections cut. Obama supporters in Connecticut are organizing a legislative watch group to do more of the same on a grassroots basis.
Besides the partisanship, these efforts run into a few different problems. There is the loss of skills and institutional memory that people like Mr. Pazniokas brought to the news room. Some of this can be addressed by creating easily searchable online repositories. Some of this can be addressed by training volunteers in better reporting.
Another issue is that of editorship. I’m less concerned about the proof reading aspects of editorship. It sometimes feels like I’ve got a thousand editors pointing out typos in my blog posts. No, the issue is, how do we decide which stories really are important. Some of this may be achievable by crowd sourcing. Articles that get a lot of attention, that get flagged as important by many readers, are perhaps the most important. Yet, as with the skills that the writers need, we need more skilled readers. We need better literacy education so that people can determine what really is important, as well as what is trustworthy, well written, and so on.
Then, there is the issue of distribution. The Hartford Courant has a circulation in the hundreds of thousands, but advocacy groups mailing lists are rarely more than a few thousand. Perhaps these few thousand are the influencers, the people that care and will act upon the information they receive. So, besides better training for activists, we need to help get people more involved. Yet newspapers have also been trying to boost circulation, without much effect, so the prospects in this area for activist groups remains questionable.
Where does this leave us? I’ll keep getting my news via Twitter and instant messages. I’ll keep reading good online sources of information, and I’ll keep encouraging others to join groups like Investigative Reporters and Editors and take courses at places like News University.
If we all do this, then maybe we will stand a chance to discover something important about our government.