Navigating by Stars in a Digital Universe

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I’ve had a particularly close look at the disintegration of legacy media. Close as in the front row of a movie theater, that uncomfortable place where you have to put your head back on the headrest to try to take it all in. 

The kind of front-row seat you would normally ask for a refund for. 

But I can’t ask for a refund, because this is the career I chose. Or perhaps it chose me, I don’t know. 

I used to write condolence notes to friends who were axed from their jobs as reporters, copy editors and photographers. 

And then I found myself in the sights of the hedge trimmers that are the corporate interests that run most of the traditional media in the United States. 

And my friends sent me their condolences. 

I wrote a private note to a few friends on Facebook, and someone sent it to the all-seeing Jim Romenesko, who published it and significantly changed the course of my career. 

Here is what I said:

“I believe in the process of news and the responsibility of a local newspaper to provide news to the citizens. Unfortunately, newspapers are helmed by old, decrepit captains who cannot see past their bifocals way down their noses reading about yesterday with all the relevance of the Hindenburg blimp disaster.”

I haven’t worked at a newspaper since I wrote those words.

And I only write it here again, because like everything else you ever do on the Internet, it never goes away. You only have to Google my name and scroll a little ways to find it.

At the time that I wrote it, my only experience was in newspapers. But now that I have worked in television and radio, the same applies to each of these legacy formats.

My point was not a personal attack on any one “captain,” but a condemnation of the bigger picture, the one that saw newsrooms excoriated to feed the bottom line. 

Rather than build something new and powerful to engage in public discourse, shed light on corruption and establish information that is truthful and accurate, we harvested all the old growth and sold it downriver so we’d have enough product to carry us through until the current set of leaders could retire comfortably on dwindling but still magnificent profits. 

Many years ago, after the full realization of the first dot-com bubble burst finally made it into writing and when talking heads could rattle off I-told-you-so’s on the morning shows and evening news, I said that legacy media should redefine itself like a startup. 

Risk, creativity, reinvestment in quality, innovation, strategic partnerships and chaos. All are hallmarks of startup culture. 

And all are exceedingly exciting when I think of how journalism could, should apply these to a new business model. 

Thomas Carlyle wrote that “(Edmund) Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery, yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

That was in 1787, when the press was little more than a political instrument wielded deftly by politicians for purposes of propaganda. 

Slowly we grew into the skin coined for us in the term and ideology of the Fourth Estate, never realizing that one day we might actually shed the skin for another to pick up and wear. 

The press has reverted to a propaganda instrument, wielded instead by corporate interests and less so by politicians. 

We’ve lost the mantle of the Fourth Estate to something not entirely proletarian, but more so than today’s media. 

Where did the Fourth Estate surface after we dropped the mantle? It surfaced in the colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, Iran and in the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya and Syria. 

It surfaced on YouTube and Twitter and to some degree on Facebook. It surfaced in lightweight storytelling technology like smartphones and inexpensive laptops with cheap USB cameras. 

It surfaced in the capable hands of the public, that very public the media has defined like so many define children, that is should be seen and not heard. 

And I stand on the other side of the glass wall of the 1A meeting room and watch as we continue to push out “all the news that’s fit to print,” without consulting or involving the very audience leaving us in droves for pseudo media outlets that allow them the interactivity they desire. 

Perhaps the most egregious difference between today’s media and the pseudo media that is outpacing it is the loss of talented thinkers, innovators, revolutionaries and leaders.

In my career I’ve been lucky to encounter a few of these for a short period of time and usually toward the end of their run of glory. These are the people who’ve imparted the most wisdom, insight, vision and direction to me.

These are the Yoda’s and the Obi Wan Kenobi’s to my Luke Skywalker, the Gandalf the Grey to my Frodo. 

The longer I stay in the media business, the more time passes between meeting the crazy ones, as Steve Jobs described them. They are passing on, either to newer and more welcoming industries or just out of the consciousness of our particular industry. 

And the helms of our ships are steered by captains who do not understand GPS and who would rather navigate by the stars instead. 

For nine years I’ve held on to the last thread of hope for media, a tenuous connection of legitimacy that is thinner now to the point that sometimes I can’t see the line in front of me. 

Maybe it’s time for the floundering dirigible to crash and burn, so that a Phoenix can rise from its ashes. 

You can listen to me read this article here:

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