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We‘re all journalists now

Robert Downes - June 28th, 2010
It was old news long before it hit the newspaper or the airwaves.
Last Wednesday, citizens writing on local Internet and social
networking sites helped spread the news that Traverse City Light &
Power (TCL&P) had shelved a plan to build a controversial new biomass
The news was passed on via environmentalists on Facebook and Twitter
and by TCL&P’s own e-mailed press release. The Traverse City
Record-Eagle also issued an email blast, scooping its print edition
story by some 20 hours.
An hour or two later, if you were tracking Facebook, you learned that
earthquake tremors had shaken some tourist trinkets off the walls of
the knick-knack stores downtown. Again, the 5.5 Canadian earthquake
was ‘old’ news by the time it hit the 5 o’clock TV news that day.
It just goes to show that the ‘news’ has morphed far beyond what
anyone might have expected even a year ago. Thanks to online social
networking, the news now gets around like lightning, often well
before it can be reported on radio, TV or in the newspaper.
Back in those long ago, faraway days of a year ago, it was predicted
that newspaper websites would replace the printed page as soon as
someone figured out a way to monetize the Internet.
Funny, but now websites in general are starting to look a bit quaint
and old-fashioned, considering that it’s far more fun to play an
interactive role in the news by joining the collective conversation on
Facebook or Twitter. We’re all citizen journalists now, even if it’s
just by passing the news along or adding a few of our own Comedy
Central-type comments to the news stream.
Facebook now has more than 400 million users with millions more
joining every week. Innovations such as the iPad and Skiff e-reader
are drawing more readers to online news, making it possible for all of
us to be citizen reporters through our blogs, Tweets and Friendings.
One sour note: this trend is accelerating with plenty of corporate input on the
• Yahoo has announced that it plans to buy an outfit called Associated
Content which has a freelance staff of 380,000 writers who will whip
up articles, photos and video stories for as little as $2 a shot. This
will serve the needs of 600 million Yahoo users and tens of thousands
of advertisers.
• AOL is also diving into journalism, “planning to hire hundreds if
journalists, editors and videographers in the coming year,” according
to AdAge magazine.
But many of the new ‘journalists’ being hired by Yahoo, AOL, Google
and such are actually ‘content providers’ who pump out an endless
wastestream of piddly-diddle meant to draw traffic to millions of
It goes like this: Joe Writer goes to an online content provider and
considers a menu of story options. He decides to write a 300-word
article on how to unscrew a stuck jelly jar lid. Joe receives a PayPal
payment of $10 or so and his jelly jar lid exposé is sold to jelly &
jam merchants who need ‘content’ to draw more hits to their websites.
Internet entrepreneurs buy bundles of such ‘content’ for a few bucks
to feed their websites, getting a kickback from the Giant Jelly
Corporation (or whatever), each time they pass along a new customer.
If you’ve ever googled a topic and have run into one of these micro
non-articles, you‘ve been lured into the shallow end of the online
content pond. So expect a lot more of this sort of thing gumming up
your search engine and wasting your time.
By contrast, the arrival of the online citizen journalist is a good
development because we‘re sharing more information and commenting on
it. Facebook brings a sense of immediacy, humor and participation to
the news that makes us hungry for more.

Now that we’re all connected, with the news delivered as soon as it
happens, one might logically assume that printed newspapers and
magazines will disappear over the next few years.
That doesn’t necessarily follow. One might also have assumed that
acoustic guitars would have disappeared after Les Paul invented the
electric guitar in 1940. Electric guitars can make far more
interesting sounds than acoustic guitars and -- like online news
websites -- initially, they were all the rage. They’re slimmer and
come in more interesting paint jobs and designs. There’s no logical
reason for the acoustic guitar to even exist, except that it has a
sweetness and “soul” in its simple arrangement of wood, strings and
space in a way that no electric instrument can mimic.
And yet if you walk into any music store in the world, you’re likely
to find as many or more acoustic guitars for sale than their electric
cousins. Doesn’t make sense.
Coloring books. Why do they still exist in an age of dazzling video
games for kids? If you follow the logic of the Internet replacing
newspapers, then coloring books would also be goners. And why are
natural food stores on an upswing when we have Sam‘s Club and Walmart?
Natural foods cost more and are less convenient to prepare than
frozen, processed meals.
The point is that innovation and progress don’t always trump what is
satisfying to the soul.
Whether we’ll see that same effect in the new social networking media
remains to be seen. I like to imagine that Northern Express will still
exist in its printed form 10-20 years from now because to an acoustic
guitar, natural foods-loving type like me, that‘s more soothing to the
soul than the endless staring into a monitor that we‘re all afflicted
with these days.
What will be the role of the ‘old’ media? Perhaps to link, lead and
analyze. Anne Stanton’s article in this issue goes in depth on the
wind and natural gas alternatives to biomass in a way that no
landslide of 140-character Tweets could ever hope to cover, and her
reporting has sparked much of the public debate that led to a more
positive and enlightened direction for TCL&P.
Northern Express Weekly, along with other members of the “old” media,
helped sound the alarm against the plan to burn the region’s forests
for electrical power at a time when biomass looked like a slam-dunk.
We did due diligence by providing a forum for supporters of biomass,
giving them a chance to offer their views. But we also amplified the
voices of anti-biomass activists such as M’Lynn Hartwell, Jeff Gibbs,
Greg Reisig and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council
(NMEAC); and readers contributed dozens of opinions to our Letters
page to keep the heat on this issue. Hopefully, this is the start of
a movement that will send biomass plans across the state up in smoke.
That’s what the “old” media can still do for you.

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