Across the building in another class, I heard a second visionary lecture. In the next millennium, the professor said, people wouldn't need a printed newspaper -- they would carry around an electronic tablet with whatever stories they wanted to read loaded inside it.
I thought they were both nuts, but they were right in their own ways. What they couldn't have known is how cataclysmic the collision of their two scenarios would be. People with the power of the media in their hands are ignoring bland, generic content.
Over the past decade, technology has been turning the entire media business upside down. Hollywood writers are on strike because nobody can figure out how to capture the cash their product is generating over the Internet. The network evening newscasts are hemorrhaging viewers, and daily newspapers' circulations are plummeting as well -- even USA Today recently announced it would trim its newsroom by 45 jobs. Here locally the collision of circumstances seems to be having a bottom-line impact, as the Spokesman-Review is laying off reporters, while longtime newsman Richard Brown is no longer on the air -- even Mark Fuhrman's popular local radio show has been cancelled.
Big media are in panic mode.
Maybe they deserve it. After all, when we've needed the unvarnished truth the most these past few years, big media have failed us. Rather than ask questions about the march to war, they all just put on flag lapel pins and embedded down. And on TV, it's all Britney, all the time, while locally it seems that a parade of crime and weather fills the evening newscasts.
And they're surprised people with lots of new options are tuning them out?
More and more, we live in an on-demand world. Media consumers should absolutely be rewarding the media they trust and ignoring the rest. That's good old American competition, and losing can be painful. But those consumers also need to be aware of the ingredients, just like in the supermarket. It's OK to consume some empty calories -- like all the opinions that populate the Internet -- as long as you get something healthy, too -- like the kinds of facts only true journalism can reveal.
Now big media are rushing to the Internet. The only trouble is that there is no economic model for Internet sales that comes close to matching their previous business models. Meanwhile, Craigslist continues to blow up the bottom lines of daily newspapers in larger cities, and portal sites like Comcast or Yahoo offer the exact same news you'll see on the evening news or in the morning paper.
The big media gravy train has jumped the tracks.
"There are a lot of people who are running scared right now," says Richard Brown, the former KXLY anchor who has seen all kinds of technological change during his 32 years in the business. (He recently resigned for unspecified reasons after nearly 10 years with KXLY.) "We cannot allow the technology to drive us; we're going to have to figure out a way to drive it. We don't want the technology to get so far ahead of the humanity of journalism that we can't tell our stories."
And that's pretty much why I decided against a career in mainstream media. I wanted to tell stories -- the way they were doing it at Seattle Weekly, where I had interned before going to grad school. That whole USA Today thing seemed crazy.
I spent my last semester at Missouri writing a plan for what would become The Inlander. While those professors were sharing their visions of the future, I was betting people still wanted to read stories that not only established facts, but also had a beginning, an end and, hopefully, a lesson.
One of the papers I studied as I wrote the plan was Portland's Willamette Week, which has been proving there's still an appetite for old-school journalism for 33 years. And it has done it on an entirely different model (free distribution, lower profitability), and it's working great. While big media can't figure out how to keep their audience, papers like Willamette Week -- and The Inlander -- are adding more loyal readers every year.
Ironically, as Willamette Week Publisher Richard Meeker wrote recently, if they applied their successful approach to a big media property, they "would have been relieved of our responsibilities long ago for unsatisfactory financial performance" -- aka, for not making a fat enough profit.
It all raises a profound question: Should American media pay allegiance to profit or progress? Progress is reporting Watergate or even the plight of the homeless in Spokane. Profit is when ratings-hungry cable news spends a week reporting on Ellen's pets.
Big media are not going bankrupt -- not even close. They continue to be very profitable -- especially in an election year in which broadcasters will share an unprecedented pot of campaign gold. I want daily newspapers and broadcasters to figure out a way to stay relevant -- we need all our media, big and small, to stay dedicated to giving us the facts required to make progress. Hopefully they'll start by unlearning the lessons of all those USA Today lovers of old.
Color weather maps are pretty, but people really want -- and their civic health requires -- that most basic unit of journalism: a story.