John Klossner

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Social media, parasailing donkeys and the news crisis

In the mid 1990s in Boston, a free daily newspaper, the Metro, appeared. Based on a successful European model, this was handed out at public transportation locations and through paper boxes. This model is now used at several cities in this country, and has become another viable media source. At first people were horrified by these "lite" publications. The Boston paper had little in-house-created content, relying instead on wire stories. And the articles were never longer than one paragraph, so Britney had as much front page space as Pakistan (or whatever the 90s version of Pakistan was. Not to mention the 90s version of Britney.)

One day I asked a friend who was a graduate student at the time (and may still be -- you never know with graduate students) why she would waste her time on a publication that didn't provide any depth to their coverage. She told me she used the paper as a guide. When she found a story that actually interested her she could go to one of the larger media outlets to find it in more detail. And since she read the free paper on the subway, she could peruse the day's stories quickly without having to wrestle with a broadsheet newspaper.

I was reminded of this while reading an piece, via GovLoop, about Web 2.0 picking up coverage of major events when the mainstream media leaves the scene. In this case the story the writer was referring to was the Gulf oil spill. When the major news networks stopped coverage, which they all do when they move on to the next "hot" topic, does that mean the story has ended? Of course not, and the piece was pointing out Web 2.0's role in maintaining the public's attention and need for continued information.

(I would point out the irony of a Web 2.0-based piece talking about the importance of Web 2.0 outlets in the media: If I'm reading that piece, I'm already on board, folks. I'm starting to worry about the number of Web 2.0 pieces telling me how important Web 2.0 is.)

(I would also point out that, just because the mainstream media are there, the story might not be in the public's eye. Have you been looking at viewer/reader figures for the players formerly known as the mainstream media? Audience figures for most mainstream media have dropped in recent years. I don't have to tell you about newspaper readership. Network television news viewership? Down. Cable news viewership? Down. The silver lining here is that when the major media players move on from a story, less people lose coverage.)

Are social networks picking up the stories when the mainstream media leaves the scene? The Gulf Spill? Haiti? The ongoing monsoon and upcoming hurricane seasons that are sure to cause flooding and crises around the world? This situation has always existed -- sooner or later, the media leaves the scene. It's just that now there are more voices to fill the gaps. With many people paying attention to alternative information outlets the attentions of the mainstream media have become less and less important. I'm not overly concerned about the media turning their light off of major stories -- I know I can still follow those stories via the web, blogs, chat rooms, etc.

No, I worry about two tangential points. First, finding accurate information. Once again, I have no concerns about people who are taking the time to read an obscure blog by a cartoonist in a niche market publication keeping up on their news. You have already exhibited the motivation to go looking for information, even if I question your judgment. Your - and my - biggest worry is to find consistent and accurate information. (These two factors don't necessarily co-exist. I would vote for consistency: If I know a source is always wrong, I'd rather rely on their consistency than rely on a source that's a mixed bag, accuracy-wise.) Web 2.0 isn't exactly a guaranteed source of hard science, and with the addition of so many alternative information sources, accuracy becomes a concern.

Secondly -- and this is nothing new -- how do we viewers/readers first locate and identify important stories? With so many media and information sources, each of us becomes our own personal editorial board, creating front pages that feature the range between the Wikileaks story to Rupert Murdoch purchasing the parasailing Russian donkey. We each need our guides, like that free Boston weekly, to give us a briefing of the news possibilities.

And what about those for who the donkey story is the hard news? I recently discovered an online Cheez-its newsletter. Are there really people (who don't work for the Sunshine Corporation, that is) who check in for updates in the Cheez-it newsletter? I have no problem with legislation calling for the deportation of anyone who has the Cheez-it newsletter as their home page.

In the meantime, I'll go ride the subway to catch up on the news.

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Posted on Aug 10, 2010 at 12:19 PM


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