Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chuck Peters and the future of news media

(Peters in front of the white board in 405 Stuart Hall)

Chuck Peters, CEO of Gazette Communications, sees the future role of newspapers as facilitating "authentic conversations" among people in a community about "the things that matter." Newspapers and television stations can no longer serve as authoritative sources of information in a world full of readily-obtainable data. The 150-year-old model of the media industry, wherein the news presented people with information they couldn't otherwise get, adjacent to advertising that paid for the information, is effectively over. So, for that matter, is the world of institutions where the individual is told to "fit in and you will be protected." He spoke on "The Media in a Hyper-Connected World" at Coe College Friday afternoon to an audience of several dozen students, faculty and community members. He spoke for nearly an hour with neither notes nor visual aids.

Peters noted that the emergence of social media, blogs and such like means "any individual in the world who cares about something can be connected to any other individual, without any institution intervening." This creates urgent issues of purpose, not only for news media, but for cities like Cedar Rapids, corporations like Rockwell Collins, and as eventually emerged during Q-and-A, educational institutions like Coe. [A remarkably parallel argument about upcoming changes in religion, for which religious institutions may or may not be ready, is made by John C. Dorhauer, author of the forthcoming Church 3.0.]

Besides the need to keep up with technological and social changes, even under old institutional models businesses and communities may have lost their way. He cited non-western critiques he had just encountered at an international conference to the effect that the West's pursuit of material goals has "alienated us from our higher selves, our neighbors, and the Earth." He said he was inspired down this path by representatives from the U.S. Commerce Department who came to Cedar Rapids after the cataclysmic 2008 flood, and who urged the city not to immediately re-create what had been here, but to take advantage of the "tremendous opportunity" to re-imagine the community for "the world that is emerging."

Peters clearly wants to do a new thing, though he was vague on the specifics. Perhaps he did not want to seem too prescriptive. He spoke of "authentic networking" in which "we are going to construct helpful local information" instead of filing reports and printing press releases. He spoke of institutions needing to think about how to make individual experiences more "powerful." This means not "using new tools to do old jobs," but by trial-and-error developing new institutions and jobs (much as the current media model emerged out of the needs and technological capacities of the mid-19th century).

This blog is about nothing if not community, and I have over the course of this first year made much the same point about the need for connection as Peters did. Visions of community are exciting, but change, particularly radical change, is scary. Facilitating "authentic conversations" requires:
  1. having a sense of who is your audience; that is, who you expect, hope and/or need to participate in the conversations. Peters spoke of targeting communication to "pockets of passion," while at other times the effort might address the whole community. I don't know what this means.
  2. the facilitator--in this case, the Gazette, maybe partnering with KCRG--to serve as an honest broker among the different parties to the conversation. This is very similar to the objective approach which most news media have practiced since the early 20th century, but which Peters demeaned as "pretended objectivity" driven principally by profit motive, further adding "objectivity is a lie." This attention-getting but analytically useless statement means, I think, that no one can be completely free of bias, but that's setting an impossible standard. Is expertise a "lie" because no one can ever know everything about anything? Is morality a "lie" because nobody's perfect? Is relief pitching a "lie" because there are occasional blown saves? To be sure we need to move past the faux he-said-she-said equivalency that plagues a lot of political coverage (and of which I've accused the Gazette, at least on their coverage of climate change). But how can the Gazette possibly invite "authentic networking" if it's seen as having its own axes to grind?
  3. a structure to the conversation, which again would be, at least initially, provided by the facilitating media. The Gazette's first crack at realizing Peters's vision is "We Create Here," a new model of the Sunday business section, which says it is "Providing accessible narratives in our community to foster engagement. We are initially focusing on the regional economy, diversity and new ventures." (Section editor Quinn Pettifer was in the audience.) Sunday's We Create Here section consisted of two happy profiles of local companies, and two happy guest columns promoting the organizations headed by the respective column writers. Is there room in Peters's new vision for news media's long-standing role of critiquing politicians, business leaders, and other social powers?
  4. staff, which the Gazette like other news organizations has been hemorrhaging in recent years. This means good reporters, looking for information, probing beyond the surface, doing the legwork the rest of us don't have time to do, and seeking out voices and perspectives that are missing from the conversation.
As a teacher of American politics, I have for a long time realized there is very little information I can impart to my students that they can't get anywhere else. But even in the age of electronic media I can add value by providing context, practicing critical thinking that is neither nit-picking nor cheerleading, and helping students see connections. And this too is an approach. I have never, ever left a class, or a course, thinking, "I totally nailed that." It's an ongoing process.

As we strive for communities that are sustainable, diverse, and provide opportunity for all, news media have an important place. They should, they must, adapt to changing times and technologies without abandoning that.

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