Today’s local paper had a toilet bowl on the cover. A toilet bowl. Yes, I know the article was about how the new Sewage Treatment plant in Halifax is done broke and won’t be fixed for a while. But guess what? We didn’t have a Sewage Treatment plant attached to the harbour a few years ago. Neither did we have one in Dartmouth nor Herring Cove but we do now. In short, this story is not about poop as the paper seems to want to frame that story, but about tax payers dollars and accountability. The toilet bowl is just a ridiculous ploy to get my eyeballs on their front page. (Aside: the director of this project’s name is Brad Anguish, a name that must speak to the way he must feel over the way the media is treating this story.) It also does not surprise me that the toilet graphic appears nowhere online. Why? because the Halifax blogger world would be screaming “lame” so fast it would create a repeat of the Juan Hurricane disaster in under 30 seconds.
Print media in general is in a sad state overall. I don’t mean to pick on the Herald over this. To be fair, sensationalism has been selling print since paper was invented. The Metro , the replacement for the now defunct Daily News, is little more than a National Enquirer with a Sports page. The Coast has long since hosted Dan Savage’s column, Savage Love, to draw people to their often myopic and peninsula-centric left-wing biased content. The Herald, though, is the Halifax news paper though. I criticize them the most because this incidence of lameness hurts the most. The toilet bowl picture is yet another step away from real news and two steps toward becoming a silly gossip rag.
It all makes me feel as if the print news industry that I loved so dearly has become likened to Cher, refusing to accept it’s age and slowly applying make-up, then cosmetic surgery, then outrageous outfits and barely-legal boyfriends to keep the public’s attention just that one decade longer. Compare to the more classy Meryl Streep that just keeps using talent, grace to entertain and amaze her audiences. Actually, this situation is worse, because it’s almost as if Meryl Streep in a moment of sad desperation decided that being Cher was the best way to carry her career into the future.
In the end, this is not a Chronicle Herald problem, or even a print media problem – it’s a community news problem. People who do not have regular access to computers should not be fed this tripe, while those with computers and social media savvy end up being the ones who get the real news – from blogs, from Twitter, on Facebook, from news sources that understand the Internet and syndicated through RSS services like Google Reader or Bloglines. A world where most of the world is mired in Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears and Fox News, while some of the world is mired in Rocketboom, and localized Twitter searches is not one that I would like to live in.
What are the solutions? Here’s what I have to offer, some library-related, some just people related:
- The world needs more podcamps that think outside the fishbowl. Podcamps are about social media folk being understood, but it’s also about regular community understanding. One of the most significant things I took away from Andrew Baron’s keynote last January was that people need opportunities to engage online communities in meaningful ways, instead of just looking at it through a window in their own room. The analogy that Andrew used was that if I was in North Korea, I would only truly be able to say I understood the people of that country if I was able to have conversations, eat their food, play their games etc. It would be folly to try and understand them from my hotel room looking outside the window.
- Newspapers need to find effective ways to get their archives out to the public (even for pay), so they can understand paper/print’s role in preserving history. All these Web 2.0 services can offer no guarantee that what we write today will be around 10 years from now. Just think about how you’d feel right now if you had put all your video content on Google Video which will not be operating for much longer.
- Good writing is no longer enough. Technology makes all media (print, images, sound, video/animation) fairly easy to create and distribute. Good journalism in the 21st century is multidisciplinary. More than that, journalists cannot get away with writing news that shows zero understanding of online culture, norms etc. Good journalistic instinct requires a great understanding of online culture.
- For libraries, the literacy divide and the digital divide are interconnected. You cannot promote basic literacy if you cannot promote the benefits of basic computing. They go hand-in-hand.
- Libraries cannot do this alone. Like the way libraries encourage parents to read to children, libraries ought to be promoting why sons, daughters and friends should be helping their parents/friends get an email account, set up RSS feeds, do conference calls with Skype, and navigate their way through Facebook’s privacy settings. Online communication is now a family and friends thing.
- Businesses, Governments and Non-profits need to think about the parameters through which they will encourage their staff to blog, engage social networks and the like. IBM’s social computing guidelines lead the way in my view, but each organization has different needs and concerns regarding how social media impacts productivity, privacy, marketing strategy, branding, and customer service (etc etc etc).
The bottom line is that the public both wants and deserves excellent journalism; they do not care what package the information comes in. If the ROI of doing print media means that we are going to have toilet bowl news in our face, then the world needs to re-think what print media means for us.