I was a panelist for a First Amendment Day program at Iowa State University Wednesday, April 15. Dr. Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State, introduced the panel with these remarks, which he gave me permission to post to his blog (I added the links). My response to Dr. Bugeja is posted separately.
Thank you for coming tonight to our panel discussion … whose title, “Can there be freedom of the Press without a Press?” is not about journalism or the future of journalism education; it is about democracy and the future of democracy.
This is how we will proceed:
I will make an opening statement based on the title of our discussion, and each participant will have 10 minutes to respond to it with their own opening statements. Then the panel will respond to each other’s statements for an additional 15 minutes. Finally, we’ll ask each panelist to make a brief summary conclusion on the premise: “Can there be freedom of the press without a press?”
We have a telling array of evidence in the selection of our speakers. We had invited Nigel Duara of the Associated Press to be here tonight; but I advised him not to after his wire service expressed concern that he may exercise free speech and voice opinion. For instance, he might have mentioned that some newspapers here in Iowa are contemplating eliminating the AP because they can no longer afford it.
Nigel’s absence testifies to the title of this panel discussion: “Can there be freedom of the press without a press?”
Perhaps the AP should host its own panel discussion. I would title it: “Can there be an Associated Press as long as there is Google?” In 2004, I urged the AP to sue Google because it was distributing its content for free-an aspect of Internet that has destroyed journalism as we knew it.
Keep the word “free” in mind and see how, if at all, the Internet has changed the meaning of that word.
Internet is not the devil in this discussion. Google is. Internet is the hell where Google resides. Rather than sue the devil, as I have been advocating for years, the Associated Press has other plans for the dominant search engine, according to Business Week, which reports:
The AP plans to build an online destination where it hopes Web users can easily find and read its news stories and those of other content creators. When it comes to compiling online news, the AP wants to out-Google Google. The Web search giant “has a wacky algorithm” for collecting news stories, AP Chief Executive Tom Curley says in an interview. “It does not lead people to authoritative sources.”
Google does not lead people to authoritative sources? Here’s a flash for the AP: Your brainstorm happened five years too late.
Google so dominates distribution — we used to call that circulation, the lifeblood of news — that fewer readers are subscribing to print outlets, believing they can google (yes, Mephistopheles, I used your trademark as a verb) national and international news.
Two of our panelists present tonight are still employed because their audiences are local — Angie Hunt, a KCCI reporter and Greenlee School teacher, and Steve Buttry, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette (Buttry note: apparently Dr. Bugeja was unaware of my title change). True, KCCI and the Gazette have an Internet presence, but their on-air and print reports mitigate against the Web’s tendency to … distract in a multitasking environment, to disrespect others in the cloak of anonymity, and to disorient in the obliteration of time and, more important, place.
“There is no ‘there’ there,” and that is the source of our woe.
That phrase is not mine. The avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein coined it 80 years ago about her urban childhood. The entire quote is worth noting: “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” That appears in her book, Everybody’s Autobiography.
The Internet is writing everybody’s autobiography. The trouble is when you get there, there isn’t any there there.
Many remember that this was the motto of Microsoft, which is not the devil. Microsoft merely provides the Window through which we glimpse the devil while exploring hell.
In a 1997, C-Net News analyzed a Microsoft commercial. I’ll read from that report:
In advertising, there’s a long tradition of making products seem more elegant than they really are by playing classical music in the background. …Now, Microsoft’s image makers are following suit with a TV spot for Internet Explorer accompanied by the sweet sounds of the Confutatis Maledictis from Mozart’s Requiem. …
As the TV screen flashes Microsoft’s “Where do you want to go today?” slogan, Wolfgang’s lyrics sound off “confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis.”
That phrase in Latin means “the damned and accused are convicted to flames of hell.”
Where would you like to go today? How about Des Moines?
Ken Fuson, one of the finest writers in the country, was bought out last year by The Register. Kelly Eagle, one of the best magazine journalists we at Greenlee ever trained, was let go this year by Meredith Corporation.
Fuson was doomed by Gannett’s dance with the devil. Eagle was let go because print is dead.
That phrase became popular in 1984. Some recall that year as the title of a dystopia by George Orwell. Others, as the year Apple released its Macintosh Computer. Neither had anything to do with “print is dead”-a line from the movie, Ghostbusters.
In that film, secretary Janine Melnitz is flirting with computer nerd Egon Spengler.
Melnitz: You’re very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
Spengler: Print is dead.
Melnitz: Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual but I think it’s a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play racquetball. Do you have any hobbies?
Spengler: I collect spores, molds, and fungus.
Print is dead. Its obituary was prophesied in another 1980s movie, Broadcast News, about the demise of standards in television. Here is a quotation from that screenplay:
What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing-.
-he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen.
That was the feeling in 2007 at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. There was a lot of selling happening then, particularly by Gannett. Senior Vice President for News Phil Currie was touting the launch of the Gannett Information Center that has replaced the traditional news room.
As I have told many of my downsized friends at The Register, Internet doesn’t define “information” the way that newspapers do. I tried to explain that to Currie, but he had places to go.
In 2003, before Gannett fathomed the concept, I wrote about what information centers would do to journalism. This citation appears in “Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age” which was marketed at the height of convergence, by my publisher, Oxford University Press, as a subversive book:
Imagine traveling to a community and stopping at the visitors’ information center, asking about sites of interest. Instead of reliable data, you get gossip and conjecture. When you complain, you are told that “information” is not necessarily grounded in fact. “That doesn’t make sense,” you say. In virtual domains, it does. According to historian Theodore Roszak, “In the past, the word (information) has always denoted a sensible statement that conveyed a recognizable, verbal meaning, usually what we would call a fact.” In the high-tech media age, information has lost its common-sense definition, Roszak notes, and has come to mean electronic messages that can be counted, catalogued, encoded, and decoded. The depreciation of information not only impacts education as Internet use expands, especially in schools, but also the reliability of journalism, with the audience typically unable to cipher fact from factoid and factoid from fiction. Worse, some do not recognize those distinctions. Many more do not care.
When I wrote that, Gannett’s stock price was $82 a share, with revenue increasing 23% over the previous year. In 2007, when Gannett promoted information centers at AEJMC, its stock price had fallen to $60 a share.
Last week Gannett’s stock was selling for $3.75, up from a low of $1.85.
In 2007, few in AEJMC were paying attention to my warnings. This year I was asked to expound on them to launch a new association Web site, aptly named, “Hot Tops,” and oraculate on the future of journalism.
Because I know the nature of Internet, I also know how to use it to generate revenue. That requires us to think more like Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, than Gannett’s Phil Currie, who recently retired.
In my post I explained that there are few, if any, successful business models for mass communication on the Web. It’s the nature of the platform. Internet does not charge for information that sells once. It gives that away for free. Internet vends information about information that sells more than once in a databank.
This is a devastating coincidence for print journalism more than other platforms. Newspapers believe that information has value. By the time information is printed, processed, distributed and read, it is old news on Internet. To counter that, consultants told publishers to invest heavily in online journalism and make the news interactive, palatable and pretty.
Those consultants forgot one fact: It really doesn’t matter how inviting or engaging your Web portal is if those who visit there don’t want to pay for anything.
We are coming to terms with that fact. It is in our interest to do so. Each newsroom is a storehouse of information about information-databanks full of records-appropriately called “the morgue”-court records, cop reports, murders, drunk drivers, sport statistics, births, deaths, financial data, housing starts, foreclosures, last wills and testimonies of all sorts. We’re learning how to vend that information, selling it more than once, and when we master that skill, the nature of newsgathering, not the technology, will change.
We will have created a successful business model. In the trade-off, we will create news that affirms opinions rather than informs the populace. We no longer will be defenders of the Constitution but generators of the e-conomy. Bit by little bit we will lower standards where they are important and coax along with flash over substance. And we will talk about all of us really being salesmen-better that, than no journalism at all-monetizing new media via the concept of “free” as Google does when it does no evil.
To test that, google the word “free.” You’ll get “The Freesite.com” telling you how to get free stuff on the Internet. You’ll get free clickers, free cell phones, free credit card checks, free software, free magazines, an article titled “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business,” free spyware, free anti-virus ware, free shareware, free Web sites, free templates, free downloads, free download managers, free music, free games, free email, free greeting cards, free hit counters, free icons, comics, dream trips and dates, all for free, free, free!
And then you get by chance or serendipity, the Detroit Free Press, which happens to be a Gannett newspaper that recently limited home delivery and print editions, placing more emphasis on digital audio and video and mobile offerings. Journalism pundits are saying that freep.com is the future of journalism.
I’m not so sure. Does journalism have a future? Can there be freedom of the press without a press? Can there be a free press if we give away the press for free? Ah, there’s the rub. If information has no value, then what will become of our news values, from fact to follow-up, from prominence to proximity, from usefulness to timeliness?
Let’s hear what our panelists have to say.
I was the first panelist to speak. Now read my response.