I buy lots of non-fiction books. I’d like to tell you about the most compelling one I’ve read this year but am afraid to mention the topic: global warming. Every post I’ve written about it has generated few page views.
That’s understandable. Olympia is lucky to have been exempted from climate change’s impacts. Nevertheless, I’d invite you to go read Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. I’ve pulled pieces from this book in a previous post. Am not feeling energetic enough to write a review but wanted to make a few additional points.
The first thing to know about this book is it doesn’t read like a deathly dry scholarly text. Although Mann does offer an overview of climate change science, it’s remarkably accessible. Perhaps more importantly, he tells a riveting story about the right-wing attack against climate science.
I’m fairly cynical but was nevertheless shocked at the depths that Mann says the fossil fuel industry and its Republican allies have gone in trying to subvert the scientific process. What I found particularly interesting was the degree to which basic techniques used at the national and international levels trickle inside our hyperlocal bubble. For example, our resident troll Arthur dishes out rhetoric that religiously follows right-wing talking points originally cooked up by high-priced propagandists.
This is important to remember even if you aren’t that focused on global warming politics. Some of the basic tactics of the STOP Thurston County movement look depressingly similar to those used by global warming denialists.
My main takeaway is that progressive-greens need to get a lot more sophisticated about how to counteract the right-wing propaganda machine. I don’t have any good ideas for how, except to stop assuming rationality and fair play. They will do what they think it takes to win. It’s pretty ugly but very real.
Mann, Michael E. 2012. The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. New York: Columbia Press.
It pays to read the fine print. A Poynter Institute story trumpets a study that found the unemployment rate for recent journalism graduates to be better than average.
Alas, one commentator pointed out that the figures refer to the category, “Communications and Journalism,” which includes a whole lot of other jobs besides working in a news media outlet.
Another commentator added, “(I)t would be very interesting to know how many recent journalism grads who want to work in NEWS gathering (print and broadcast) as REPORTERS are unemployed or settled for non-reporting jobs, including the broader category of jobs that have virtually nothing to do with da news.”
Elsewhere on Poynter.org a journalism grad wished that he had instead pursued a degree in mortuary science, which is apparently a booming field. Andrew Beaujon lamented, “Although I could have had all this, the career, the job, the growth rate, I followed my heart instead of my head. I chose to go into journalism and screw my credit rating from now until, well, eternity.”
Yup. To pursue journalism as a career very likely means to take a vow of poverty — or at least perpetual economic volatility. Why do that when the writing and thinking skills you learned in j-school can be so much more lucrative in other fields, such as technical writing, policy analysis or public relations?
I know a number of people in state government who would make incredibly good journalists. However, I’d never recommend that they actually attempt a career switch. It’s very hard to make a decent living as a reporter or editor — particularly here in Olympia.
That goes a long way toward explaining why the local news media are so mediocre. That isn’t going to change until folks start to acknowledge that you get what you pay for.
The cause and effect is really quite simple: A news media outlet that is largely — or even entirely — paid for by advertisers is going to meet their needs first. Selling high levels of consumption is a very different mission than acting as the eyes and ears of an all-too-fragile democracy. One could even go as far as arguing that a major reason for American democracy’s decline revolves around the failure of the news media to diversify its funding beyond advertising.
The Inkwell delves into this issue in a discussion with Victor Packard, co-author of Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights. Packard suggests that we reframe the conversation from looking at the “crisis of journalism” as a business problem.
Packard concludes that “now is the time for structural alternatives to the commercial model of the press. Now is the time to transform a dying advertising-dependent model of journalism into a true public service model that provides a forum for diverse voices, scrutinizes governments and corporations, and offers rich information from a wide variety of sources and viewpoints.” He points to not-for-profit alternatives such as the BBC and NPR. I’d offer the friendly amendment of buying daily newspapers and turning them into nonprofit trusts similar to the Poynter Institute.
These are big changes. But they all start with readers like you deciding to pay for quality journalism even when you can get away with not doing so.
Mark Derricott has a fascinating series of posts on placemaking and the planning process. The first post asks readers whether they have found any place in Olympia exceptionally enlivening. Emmett O’Connell offers an interesting response. I’m posting this partly to encourage more people to chime in.
I don’t have a very good answer to Mark’s query. Compared to the small town where I previously lived, Olympia has felt rather generic and centerless. Indeed, its geographical dispersion seems to be reproduced in the balkanized quality of the community’s culture, e.g., substantial gulfs between the Evergreen campus and community as well as the capitol and community. Even local progressive-green groups tend to not work together all that much.
However, the two places that have been the most enlivening to me are the Westside Olympia Food Co-op and the downtown boardwalk. The Co-op comes as close as any building to being the center of the subcultures in which I circulate. The boardwalk, in contrast, represents to me a positive space where the entire community can mingle.
The second post discusses the link between a neighborhood’s quality of social life and all manner of outcomes, such as the health of its residents. Mark asks a key question of Olympia: “How do we make places in cities to which people move to be as far apart as possible?” My sense is that’s what many Olympians want to do. Hell, to a certain degree I do too.
I don’t think you can enforce a sense 0f community. But you can cultivate engagement. For me that happens when I see healthy and productive interactions occurring; when dynamics look dysfunctional I tend to withdraw into an analytical critique mode. Thus blogging.
The third post argues that improving the built environment can’t be done without better understanding what makes the social life of a community work. Mark suggests that this is a bottom-up process which transcends governmental activities such as comprehensive plan development.
“I’m talking about a collective awakening through action/praxis (in the ancient Greek use) where civic responsibility is commitment to the community by the way one lives one’s life — not by attending meetings, forums or open houses,” Mark states in a response to a comment by Rob Richards.
I appreciate Mark’s sensibility but find myself wondering whether his ideal can be achieved any longer given the eclipse of the “real” by the virtual. How can we possibly achieve “(m)ore time on the front porch and less in the backyard” when it is easier to send an email to Germany than it is to take the trash out?
One of the more provocative books I’ve read over the last decade has been, E-topia: “Urban life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Author William Mitchell argues that electronic technologies are causing the most fundamental reordering of human settlements since the rise of the Greek city-states. Tele-conferencing, e-mail and the Internet replace physical interactions.
In a digitally interconnected planet, concepts such as “civic space” take on whole new meanings. For example, web pages to some degree displace doors in buildings as points of entry, and a sense of community can become significantly detached from one’s physical location.
Whether we like it or not, we are not going to stuff the electronic revolution back into the bottle. That means we’re going to have to come up with better ways to integrate our virtual and physical realms. What does that mean for placemaking here in Olympia?
Mitchell, William J. 2000. E-topia: “Urban life, Jim, but not as we know it.” London: The MIT Press.
Matt Batcheldor’s story about the City of Olympia’s 2013 budget gap is pretty good by Olympian standards. It’s fairly detailed and doesn’t seem to have an obvious bias. Wouldn’t it be grand if all Olympian news stories were of that caliber?
That said, I got a sinking feeling when I read the article. For one thing, it suffers from some lapses such as not telling us the total budget figure and the estimated deficit’s percentage of total discretionary spending.
But even if this story had a bit more development it would still represent the journalistic equivalent of a Model T Ford of yore attempting to accelerate onto a busy contemporary highway. That’s a recipe for an accident.
What we have here is a hopelessly obsolete way of reporting on the increasingly complex public policy issues of the 21st Century.
Story’s obsolescence grounded in two decisions
The Olympian made two decisions that turned what could be a good piece of journalism into a poster child for what’s wrong with the field.
First, the story’s basic approach is colored by the Policy Caste System model of public affairs reporting. In this worldview, the vast majority of newspaper readers are assumed to possess only a general — and fleeting — interest in policy debates so are given little more than he said/she said summaries.
The problem with this approach is that it typically doesn’t provide enough information for the reader to make thoughtful judgments. This cultivates a lot of “noise,” e.g., perspectives grounded in a lack of understanding of a policy debate’s complexity. This is particularly problematic with budget stories, which have many moving pieces.
The Olympian’s second bad decision was to structure the budget story like a typical hard-news article from the print era, where the reporter writes a succession of stand-alone, one-dimensional pieces.
In contrast, what The Olympian could have done was to build its coverage around a “database” model of content, where the reader can drill down to more detailed layers of information, data and alternative policy scenarios.
To do that The Olympian would need build its content primarily around its web platform rather than its print edition. That would take a whole different way of thinking about how to structure content.
What would a new approach look like?
Let’s take a moment to visualize what The Olympian’s budget coverage could look like. For one thing, Batcheldor’s story would be filled with links that allow you to obtain more specific levels of information. Sometimes this is as simple as linking to a previous story, such as a proposal to pay for capital improvements to the Washington Center for the Performing Arts.
But more important is the systematic development of a second layer of background information. This might include sales tax receipts compared to other benchmark cities. Or a comparison of staff compensation costs with other local jurisdictions, state government and the private sector.
This second-layer content can’t always be written at once, but it can be structured in such a way so the material is more readily available to the reader.
Another important element of a new approach would be to pay more attention to cultivating reader engagement. For example, The Olympian could set up a series of web-chats where budget experts were available to take questions via comment threads.
Here’s the key: Once basic facts are put on the table, commentators would no longer be allowed to pollute the threads with propaganda that clearly isn’t true. Their comments would either be deleted or a moderator would provide a correction that links to source material.
I don’t mean to suggest that these changes would make the 101 Fighting Keyboard Battalion go away. However, I do think that a new approach to reporting could cultivate a more factually grounded and civil conversation. And that might translate into better policy decisions.
What can the local independent media do?
I wouldn’t expect The Olympian to update its approach any time soon because it would require too many cultural and structural changes in how they do business.
That’s unfortunate because the paper’s monopoly on local news coverage is so complete that obsolete coverage techniques will continue to directly translate into dumbed-down public discussions.
Think about how that could play out with Olympia’s 2013 budget. Instead of a mature debate about the complexities of revenue and spending choices, what we’ll likely see is bumpersticker sloganeering about “tax-and-spend” Democrats and the false promises of magic cuts that could balance the budget.
There is no substitute for The Olympian ditching its Model T approach to hard-news reporting. However, local independent news outlets could begin to point the way.
For example, the legacy media outlets — Olympia Power & Light, Green Pages and Works In Progress — could gradually shift their attention from print to web in how they structure their content. That might start with providing more links in web-based stories.
In addition, Green Pages has a proud history of sponsoring public events, so that publication would be a natural for also offering web-based conversations with experts and decision makers.
There’s no one best way to bring local public affairs reporting into the 21st Century, but it starts with the acknowledgement that the one-dimensional, stand-alone story is a hopelessly obsolete way of covering complex issues such as a budget shortfall.
EDIITOR’S NOTE: One thing that I’ve wanted to cultivate is an idea bank of sorts, where people could brainstorm new types of services, organizations or ways of addressing an issue. Toward that end, here’s a comment from Ellen. Friendly amendments or other ideas are invited.
OK great. I’m looking for a way to float the idea of a local stock market where people could invest in our local businesses instead of Wall Street. Do you fit in?