Meeting The Media

I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching.

The Huntington Chamber of Commerce held a “Meet the Media” breakfast where Long Island and metro-area journalists talked about the year’s biggest story, the least reported story, and how to get a press release seen as a story. This was interesting. What got me, though, was when they wrestled with what they must do to be relevant themselves.  This is what I’d encourage:

Important Over Popular. I realize advertisers probably put undue emphasis on social media, but please let’s not have the peanut gallery dictate what’s covered.  I have Facebook, LinkedIn, and friends who forward things inspiring, appalling or fun to argue with. I dig Digg. I even have Twitter followers, though I’ve yet to tweet. We cherry pick and pontificate, yielding finely niched popularity contests, personal statements, and less than civil, questionably educated debate. Should journalists participate? Sure. It’s a good place to connect and study people. This isn’t journalism, though. It’s the public square.

One local newspaperman pointed this out to his fellows, and I hope others will agree: You are the journalists. You are trained to uncover truth, draw attention, and provide context. Be savvy, but don’t pander to lowest common denominators or outspoken niches. Rise above, shine a light, and lift rocks where no one has looked. Wield your critical thinking skills, access to information, experience and judgment. Connect the dots, break it all down and serve up what you think people need to know. The masses will follow.  

Good News and Bad News. We count on journalists to administer bad news. However, many otherwise intelligent people willfully ignore the media because time with it leaves the impression that the world is fully corrupted and likely a lost cause. Why? Editors know train wrecks sell.

One journalist made a point about this that was sharpened by the silence that struck before people realized his example was hypothetical: Were it revealed that the homeless girl from Brentwood stole her Intel-Semi-Finalist Winning Project from some kid in Jericho that would draw huge response. If that happened, journalists should burst our collective bubble. Thank God, it hasn’t.

Fortunately, the journalist’s point was dual. His example also showed the value and occasional front-page caliber of good news. Despite the lack of a gallows draw, everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. It was Samantha Garvey who, in the face of disheartening adversity, had the support and initiative to succeed. It is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Following the story as it brightened, I purchased a “real” newspaper to hug.  It was at least as important as ever-impending doom and gloom. Samantha moved people to reach further and open wider. Some found faith in humanity, which can be hard to come by. Others found faith in themselves. Some stepped up to help that girl and her family, generating stories of their own.

Headlines and Detail. It’s true. Few can afford to pay attention. Even those with a capacity to focus have lots to keep track of. I don’t just read local media. I like regional stuff, and world stuff, and diverse trade stuff. I’m an existentialist egghead seeking to cover all perspectives. Sometimes you’ll even catch me reading tabloids and pondering overexposed life. Mostly, I’m striving to reconcile competing worldviews in search of my own piece of truth. That’s a lot of news. I have a full life to live around that. Often I’m limited to headlines and first paragraphs, grateful for whoever invented the inverted pyramid.

This doesn’t mean I only want one paragraph. Rather, it makes me even more reliant on journalists who get the full scoop. Those who at least link source material come across as open, educated, and respectful of intelligence. Maybe you don’t see too many stats showing people clicking through long articles, but I suspect those who do use them fully, and cite the heck out of them to others. These diehards are your experts, teachers, advocates and students. They include a critical minority that leads thought, and gets things done. A journalist who can fill a few pages well has probably also got a better grasp on what those first paragraphs should say.

If paper’s too expensive for that many words, fine, and even poets like me don’t want journalists wasting space with flowery nothings. Arrange front pages to facilitate skimming and conserve words elegantly, but please don’t cut to fit shrinking attention spans. We’re dumbed down to the bone already, thanks. Give us substance.

Bottom line? I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching. We don’t need news based on what we already think we know, what the average blowhard’s willing to compute, or what will freeze attention in shocked stares. Yes, there are liars, thieves, fools and fouler things. We shouldn’t whitewash that, or minimize the media’s watchdog role. However, striving heroes and successes need spotlights too, preferably in a balance that mirrors reality. We must be warned, but also educated and inspired.

It’s unfortunate that news seems to be weighted on scales used for entertainment more than those used for academic contribution. Yes, great teachers employ both – and journalists ARE the ultimate continuing education machine — but shouldn’t we lean just a little bit more toward the latter? I think so.

Time is a Four Letter Word

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island.

Jaci Clement Time PieceIt’s about time. The local landscape has shifted dramatically over the last few years, as we’ve lost many of our long-time leaders due to retirement, economic turmoil and damning paper trails. 

The local media landscape has been time’s victim for quite awhile now, but media – which is always ahead of the curve when it comes to socioeconomic change – has had the advantage of using time to regroup. What’s emerging is a new paradigm, where the size of the media outlet no longer matters. Nor, the size of its audience. Today, it’s becoming clear the future of media is all about engagement. Large media outlets, like large companies, often have problems this: Too many levels of bureaucracy simply bring the concept to a screeching halt. Then the tail begins to wag the dog. From there, things get too unbearable to watch.

The timing is perfect for AOL’s Patch.com to enter the Long Island market. Unlike many areas of the United States, Long Island’s wired from head to toe, making this prime real estate for an internet-only engagement. The premise of Patch – to cover your local school boards and other hyper local goings on – is nothing short of brilliant on an Island where most of your taxes go straight into the schools. And, unlike a local upstart working from scratch, AOL’s got the goods. This island, if they’re smart, can be theirs for the taking.

Long Island Press has used time well, in discovering both its voice and its purpose: bringing to life important stories no other media outlet is covering. It’s the type of reporting that is, thankfully, short on patience for ideas generated from press releases. Long Island Business News continues to prove the size of a newsroom doesn’t matter. What does? Having reporters who know the market, and how it works.

If this was five years ago, the firewalling of Newsday content would have been nothing short of a death sentence for Long Island. The impact of such a decision is just this: It kills the amount of progress this region can make. After all, the public conversation drives public policy. When there is no conversation being heard, policy making doesn’t stop. It simply lacks substance. What’s happened, because of that firewall, Long Island’s biggest daily conversation has been silenced in Albany, Washington, D.C. and the rest of the country.

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island. It makes television coverage by New York City stations absolutely imperative for anyone off Long Island to remember that one, Long Island does still exist and two, we have stuff to say about what happens to us by policy makers when they’re in session. Long Island’s radio stations could be a big plus here, but local radio, like many of the local community newspapers, seem to be stuck in a moment in which they can’t find their way out.

Timing is everything.

Inside newsrooms, it’s all about time. Print editors taking longer than 10 seconds to make a story decision actually slow down the process of the entire paper. Television, operating on a five-second delay, allows news directors far less luxury than their ink-stained counterparts, as decisions affecting on-air stories must be made within four seconds. Small wonder news is such an imperfect animal. Right now, lots of time and money is being invested to decide if, when and if-ever it’s OK to say “f@*k you” on broadcast television.

This is a sentiment which underscores that time is, in fact, just as important to people outside of a newsroom. Especially in New York. The only variable on the time factor, in this particular case, happens to depend upon where you are in New York.

In Manhattan – where if you look at a stranger for more than one-sixteenth of a second, it’s viewed as a threat – a quick “f@*k you” is the ready retort. In extreme circumstances – someone stole your cab – you’ll hear polysyllabic adjective added to it, which easily — but quickly — bounces off the tongue.

On Long Island, where suburban sprawl has slowed life down a bit, the response is more akin to, “Oh, go f@*k yourself.” Complete with hand gesture, and a look. It’s really something more of a theatrical production but, again, time is on the side of Long Islanders.

Then there’s Brooklyn, where the basic response philosophy is to take it to the extreme. This is to make it tragically clear to the perpetrator not only that a boundary line has been crossed, but to emphasize where the line is, and to not bother approaching it again. Therefore: “F#*k you. And your mother.”

“Time can’t help but affect us all in wild and strange ways, but it’s clear the time has come, across the board and across the Island, to put up or shut up.