In another of a never ending line of self-congratulatory but quickly fading news paper journalists, Newark Star-Ledger writer Paul Mulshine has bravely taken it upon himself to warn us all that we'll miss him and his kind when they are gone. By his kind, of course, he means print journalists.
Mulshine assures us all that, Mencken-like, he feels that the masses are idiots that cannot even pronounce pundit much less spell it well enough to become citizen journalists on the Internet. He is certain that without the assistance of professional journalists we lowly citizens will never be able to find out what's going on in our local governments. This is because, he says, bloggers won't take the time and haven't the ability to, "sit through town-council meetings and explain to you why your taxes will be going up."
Of course, he is completely wrong. Left and right there are many such bloggers doing just that on a daily basis.
Mulshine is correct in some of what he says in his Wall Street Journal piece, though. He is correct to say that the much-ballyhooed changes the Internet is supposed to create will never happen in one glorious eruption. We simply won’t see an instantaneous replacement of print media with Internet news services. He is right to be skeptical of the blind assumption that, just because we have the Internet, suddenly everyone that has a computer will become the next political pamphleteer, political pundit, or citizen journalist. Let's face it, most people just aren't motivated enough to take up the challenge.
Mulshine relates that skepticism well.
In his 1920 essay "The National Letters," Mencken traced this sentiment back to the early days of our democracy. He noted how first Ralph Waldo Emerson and then Walt Whitman prophesized the rise of what Whitman termed "a class of native authors, literatuses, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known." Mencken was pessimistic about this prospect thanks to what he termed "the democratic distrust of whatever strikes beneath the prevailing platitudes."
I share that pessimism. Every time a new medium arises, a new group of avatars arises with it, assuring us of the wondrous effects it will produce for our democracy.
To a degree, Mulshine is right, of course. The simple matter of fact is, the largest majority of folks will not take the time to create a blog, investigate stories, go to public meetings held by local government, write about them, and do all of this consistently and on their own without being paid -- he didn't even want to do it when he was paid. He is also right to be skeptical of the starry-eyed professors and philosophers dreaming about the instant revolution in man that will start a new age. New ages are far and few between because human nature doesn't do much changing! Real change is often much slower than the dreamy, dreams of the philosophers and futurists imagine. After all, were it that quick to change, we should all be living like the Jetsons by this time!
I echo some of Mulshine's worries. It’s true that not every blogger has the resources to fly off to cover a foreign story as a paid journalist does. We also currently have a particular problem that newspapers and TV journalists do not have. Easy visibility. People know just where to go to get the news today. It's easy to find a newspaper, radio station or TV outlet to learn what's going on in the world. It's harder to find the best Internet coverage. It takes a lot of time and searching to find the best coverage of a particular subject on the web and, let's face it, fewer people will be willing to undertake that time consuming search than are willing to simply flip on a TV or pick up a newspaper.
For the web to replace TV and print journalism, there will have to be some sort of technological improvement for the public to more easily find those bloggers and Internet journalists that fulfill the duties of the lost journalists that Mulshine is eulogizing. The net is just not there yet.
But, Mulshine is wrong to assume that no one will take up the challenge or that it impossible for the net to improve enough to take the place of print media. Like good writers in the media, good bloggers will emerge, they will gain an audience, and they will succeed. And of course, they already are. There are a growing number of them, too. Every single state in the union, for instance, has a small network of bloggers -- both right and left leaning -- that write exclusively about their own local government. And, as local TV and radio continue to rely on these groups to broadcast local news, these networks will become increasingly important and professional. They will also become self-perpetuating when that success mounts.
It will surely take some time, though, for the Internet revolution to become a news institution. A lot of changes will occur in the meantime. But to assume it is impossible for the Internet to rival the Old Media in professionalism is illogical as well as backward looking. In fact, Mulshine makes a singular, and self-serving, logical error in his piece.
Acting as if NO Internet news is trustworthy or professional is just as illogical as assuming that all print media work is the most perfect model. The truth of the matter is a large part of the product that the Old Media is trying to sell us is junk. Most journalists fail at their job. There are a few, of course, that are great. But, this is an illustration of humanity itself, isn’t it? Some will be good, the rest will fail. It's Jefferson's "aristocracy among men" defined.
The Internet is already producing its stars just as print media has, and it will continue to evolve, getting better with each succeeding day. Additionally, there's no reason to expect that professional journalists will forever go away. There is also no reason to blindly believe in some fantastic future of every citizen becoming his own journalist. Somehow a new business model will find its way to the net and professional journalism will continue unabated.
To sum up, some of Paul Mulshine's criticisms are important warnings to heed. But his entirely skeptical feeling that the Internet is not up to the task is absurd. He is like a horse salesman in 1905 scoffing at those buying an automobile as falling for a fad that will never replace the horse as the perfect mode of personal transportation. In a few years time we'll all be asking Mr. Mulshine where his horse is now?
(Photo credit: nj.com)