Who will provide answers to the most basic of questions?

As an inquisitive person trying to survive life relatively unscathed and to leave the world at least a little better off for my presence, I need answers to two fundamental questions:

How does the world work?

Why does it work that way?

We all struggle, I suppose, with the really big question: What is the meaning of life? Or, if you’re a socially conscious, progressive person, this somewhat smaller question: How can I try to fix what’s wrong? But I can’t consider either of those without compelling answers to the first two.

I do not need or want the media to give me presumptive or allegedly definitive answers to how the world works and why. I’m 61 years old; the world works differently today than it did in my youth. Change is constant, so studying how the answers change is important. I’ve got a mind of my own; I’ll decide what’s definitive for me.

As a professor, I try to help my journalism students begin to find their own answers to those questions. I no longer rail at them for failing to read newspapers to “keep up on current events.” Now I tell them that the student who spends a half hour each day seeking answers to those two questions in some purposefully analytical way is likely to be better prepared for life after graduation than the student who does not.

These days, when I hold up a newspaper in class, I call it an “instruction manual for operating in the world.” Again, that’s an instruction manual, not the manual. But it is a manual we all need.

It’s hardly news these days that newspapers — the dead-tree kind as well as those online — are in the midst of some sort of metamorphosis induced by both profit crises and technological adaptation failures. Will newspapers survive? screams the tabloid headline. I don’t know. Ditto 24-hour cable news channels. Ditto online-only news aggregators. Ditto the Associated Press and Reuters wire services. Ditto any mediated venture that labels itself journalistic.

New business plans; better use of technology; brighter, braver, more imaginative media corporate executives; demand for better information products by an audience that desperately needs them … eventually, the news-provision business will change.

So, too, will change be apparent among the people who work to provide serious, credible answers to those two questions. Many, but not all, will be graduates of journalism programs like mine. They’ll be the who, what, when, where, why, how, so what and what does it mean thinkers and doers. I’ll have taught them well, presumably, about fairness and balance and accuracy and ethics and credibility. There will be those trained elsewhere who hew to a different approach, people who follow a more subjective approach such as that outlined by my S&R stable mate Sam.

The plentiful critiques and criticisms of the press (and media, writ large), including mine, have taken on a cacophony that dulls the ability to get to the heart of what people need to know, want to know and why.

Will newspapers survive? Will online news and bloggers supplant dead-tree papers? Will media business plans incorporating “mojos” (mobile journalists) and “crowd-sourcing” (volunteers, not always trained well, who provide news, usually guided by a professional) and “information centers” become the new paradigm of news?

I don’t know. But I’ll bet that no matter what means of content distribution emerges to replace what exists now, the need for well-trained journalists will remain.

Yes, bloggers are doing well in providing analysis on many topics. YouTube et al. provides information in other ways as well.

But I need answers to how does the world work and why does it work that way. And I want those answers in one convenient place for about 30 minutes a day.

Properly trained and compensated journalists provide sufficient answers (but not all possible ones) across the full breadth and depth of the questions I need answers to. That’s good enough for me. For four bits stuck in a newspaper rack each morning, I’ll bet it’s good enough for plenty of other inquisitive people, too.

4 replies »

  1. I heard an interesting discussion on McLaughlin Report tonight, Denny on the future of news media. The gist? We’ll have some hybrid form of news media within the next 5-10 years thanks to…(wait for it)…Rupert Murdoch.

    Scary? You bet.

    It’s figuring out what the balance will be between “professional” journalists as you envision them and the other types of “grassroots” journalists that will be the trick. I think our chief concern should be how corporate interests will try to manipulate information sharing by deciding who gets access to broad band Internet signal, down load capability, and other essential technical services for good information sharing…