Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lunch with George Arnold

George Arnold has an interesting commentary in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the nature and future of news and information in the public sphere. Unlike the editors at the Northwest Arkansas Times, Arnold gets out and chats with folks outside the office on a regular basis and considers their views. He tries to engage in a conversation with citizens instead of the unilateral preaching and navel gazing of certain other editorial and opinion writers. That was evident from his editorial column today, wherein he reflected on the national trend of newspaper downsizing and the rise of alternative information sources.

As Arnold tells it, "I sat down for lunch last week with some residents of Northwest Arkansas who keep close eyes on what's going on around them. They're veterans of community activism, politically engaged. What was on their minds? Judging from many of their questions to me, they are just as concerned about the future of news and newspapers as those of us working in the business. My lunch partners have been watching as the Internet, and blogs especially, redefine the meaning of news, and how news is delivered." At the other local newspapers, these kind of people are labeled extremists and dismissed as having nothing worthwhile to say.

George Arnold has learned what too many of his colleagues in the local press fail to understand or acknowledge. "Gone are the days when those of us in journalism school were trained to be the gatekeepers of information for the rest of the public. As newspaper reporters and editors, we would be deciding what was important enough to pass along to our readers each day. The responsibility was a serious one, and not to be taken lightly."

"The gatekeeper function hardly exists any more," he admits with a sense of caution. "Everybody with a computer has become his own editor, seeking out the news of interest to him and perhaps, like some of those at lunch with me, running a blog or at least contributing their own thoughts to blogs. The gathering of news has gone viral. I willingly admitted to the group that I scanned several must-read blogs in the course of my working day, along with the obligatory review of several newspapers. Without all of them, I'd be at a disadvantage in trying to keep up with what's going on in the world around me".

The mainstream media depend on advertsing revenue from business and government, while bloggers depend more on passionate opinions than paychecks and have less concern about offending the powerful. Arnold also knows "that there is a lot of bogus information on blogs, too. Anybody who refers to blogs has to be his own gatekeeper these days, sorting out the worthwhile from the trash. No easy task, as any newspaper reporter could testify." He should have said as any newspaper readers could testify as well.

It is asking a lot of readers to expect them to think critically, evaluate arguments, challenge evidence, and draw their own conclusions, but we think it is worth it. Bloggers and their readers sometimes get it wrong, but that is usually because government, corporate, and other institutional gatekeeppers (including the hired press) are less forthcoming about their true motives and prevent them having access to all of the relevant information. Bloggers must then speculate on what is missing and decide for themselves what news and views are "fit to print." Readers are not reluctant to let them know whether they agree.

But George, I thought what happened at lunch stayed at lunch.

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