Thursday, December 16, 2010

Forget the economy. Let me tell you about a bake sale!

The Torrington Register Citizen, the New York Times tells us, is encouraging the public to visit its newsroom and attend afternoon news meetings.

Why? No one there has a clear explanation, according to the Times' story.  It's possible to sell newspapers. No newspaper has yet figured out a successful or robust way to charge for Internet content.  That's why the few thriving Web newspapers depend on grants from non-profit organizations.

Or, a company can distribute a paper for free to get advertisements into people's homes. 

From all appearances, the reason to invite the public to help produce a newspaper is because the newspaper does not want a long payroll of reporters.

Think of it in this abstract way: Consider a circle including all events, big and small. Newsworthy events are small circles. Other goings on are squares. Events are newsworthy if they provide information about how tax dollars are spent,  information the electorate needs to know in order to make rational voting decisions, or if the event is entertaining. 

For example, a power plant exploding ultimately raises questions about whether the government was maintaining its responsibility to protect citizens.  Tragedies also often provide grisly entertainment. Crime tells you how well your police force is working. 

Sports, movie reviews, advice columns,  local columns, letters, comics, and horoscopes may be informative, but are usually either thought-provoking or otherwise entertaining.

The reporter's job is to travel inside the circle and find the circles among the squares. This requires the skill to recognize a circle and/or the ability to convince officials to help pinpoint the circles. A higher number of reporters makes the task of gathering circles easier. You can collect more circles over a given amount of time, too.

Not all circles are simple. Often, circles are within circles, within squares, within circles. It may take time to find the circle in the middle. If you don't have the staff, those circles remain hidden and unknown.

Bringing "the public" (whatever that means) into the newsroom is casting a huge net and hoping that the people who appear will bring some circles with them. Or, more likely, the public, which is not monolithic, is likely to differ with editors about what constitutes a circle. 

Citizen A, for example, might question the necessity of reporting a murder, or identifying the victims of a car crash. Citizen B could question why the newspaper publishes or posts so much bad news. Why not some good news? Citizen C might complain that the publication is simple-minded, and Citizen D may protest that the writing is too complicated to understand.

The jobs of the reporters and editors is to slog through all of the collected circles and squares, separate the two, and decide on the most important circles. 

How will the public contribute to that process? That depends on who shows up on any given day. Will the editors follow the public's news judgment? If not, what benefits do the individuals accrue?

Another question is, who would be motivated to attend news meetings? Would suspects or crooked cops appear and demand that their stories be told? No. Do you want the mayor helping decide what you read? No. Will business owners reveal plans to lay off workers? No. 

Will anyone newsworthy show up? Only for self promotion. 

More likely, editors will hear about bake sales, scholastic sports, homeowner disputes, and public works complaints. And they may also be treated to the rantings of a few lunatics.

So, what does inviting "the public" into the newsroom accomplish? As far as I can tell, nothing, other than prior restraint.

Will "the public" compensate for a skeleton staff? Unfortunately, no.

Jesus wept

The creepy thing about John Boehner weeping so readily on a variety of subjects, is that the tears seem prompted by self-pity.

Boehner's labile behavior is troubling when you consider other historic wallowers in self-pity.  Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency after his plot to undermine the Constitution was uncovered; Adolf Hitler, inventor of industrial mass murder to effect genocide; and Jimmy Swaggart, evangelist who sinned. You can think of many more.

Self-pity is not pleasant to watch.

There are plenty of reasons to weep. Being wrapped up in yourself is not a good one to put on public display.