Readers Respond to 'Fundamental Truths' About Our Business

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By: Michael Bugeja My recent essay, The Fundamental Truths of Our Business -- questioning the counsel of media consultants and revisiting their unfulfilled promises -- hit home with many E&P readers. The piece generated dozens of personal and e-mail responses from the Midwest, East Coast and even Africa. A few days after it appeared, Google recorded more than 440 Web sites that carried or commented on the piece.

I have been writing in one form or another for E&P since April 3, 1976 when the magazine published a letter about the importance of spelling. Somehow, that seems quaint in our grammarless online world. Unlike my previously published pieces through the years, meant to improve craft or inspire zeal, ?Fundamental Truths? had a snarky edge.

I?m mad as hell. I am a journalism director responsible with others for training the next generation of journalists. I know what awaits them because I still report for national media. Moreover, I know technology because I research it, publishing two books since 2005 on new media and community. Both of them warn about tech-driven revenue growth at the expense of the Fourth Estate.

The response to ?The Fundamental Truths of Our Business? has given me hope that my reporting and research may inspire more zealots to confront problems of convergence and remind media owners that they are privileged to earn profit because of the First Amendment, obligating them to promote social responsibility over fiduciary responsibility.

When you delete place from your news report, all you have left is market niche, forcing newspapers to compete with outlets that comfort the comfortable and amuse the afflicted for a fee. On campuses across the country I see emerging generations hooked on iPhones, handhelds and social networks rather than on community, which they navigate as though it is not there. And they pay a price beyond tuition and fees.

Average debt at my home institution, Iowa State, is $29,000 per student. That is more than most need for tuition, relying on easy student loans to live consumer lifestyles using digital devices that require access fees, upgrades and credit card accounts with mounting interest. They may own these gizmos, but they?re not using them to access news. Instead, many are texting, browsing, emailing, downloading videos and buying online?during class.

At Iowa State, we occasionally have to shoo student journalists out of the newsroom, reminding them that scanners are more important than iTunes, faces more diverse than Facebook, places more authentic than MySpace and real life more authentic than Second Life.

There is an interpersonal divide between generations, and decisions being made at corporate headquarters often are done by executives who enjoyed the benefit of a literary education. So naturally they view consumer technology as a supplement rather than substitute for experience.

Many in the emerging generation see technology as entertainment tool rather than reporting device.

This is not the case elsewhere. Last month I spoke to a group of East European journalists and asked a pointed question: ?Are you willing to die for the truth??

Each had eloquent answers about why that level of commitment matters in their home countries?to fight oppression, to enlighten the electorate, to expose fraud. Certainly, many U.S. reporters are willing to die for the truth not only in Iraq but also at home with the recent slaying of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey.

I wonder whether citizen journalists even know about this level of commitment.

One of the best responses to my piece was from a former African citizen journalist, Clifford Derrick, who wrote that he was ?thrilled? by the E&P ?analysis of the threats and opportunities posed by the Internet's interactivity.?

Clifford Derrick, a Kenyan journalist hiding in South Africa, knows what it means to put one?s life on the line. You can read about his plight at the Freedom of Expression Web site:

He writes, ?You are very right in advising the newspapers or any credible news medium, be it Internet, print or broadcasting not to relinquish the role of the gate-keeper.

?But the best part of your article that has captured my attention is your conclusion and recommendations? about the importance of facts, names, places and writing style. ?I concur with you that user-generated content does not have all the categories that you mentioned as fundamentals for reportage.?

?I am still having a problem with identifying my style of telling my investigative stories. I believe you may be of help.?

Derrick displays the type of zeal that we seldom see in wireless classrooms, an insatiable hunger for learning and healthy skepticism about our ?fast-changing new media environment??a phrase that consultants use to buy more time without results.

Things haven?t changed that much. In 2003, top stories included the war in Iraq, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the new American Idol, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. In 2006, top stories included all of the above except the explosion. Instead, we had astronauts gone wild.

The posting of the E&P essay also put me in contact with many of my former students, including Miles Moffeit, investigative journalist for The Denver Post. He studied with me in the early 1980s when I was an untenured assistant professor and media adviser at Oklahoma State University.

?Nice job on the `Fundamental Truths? piece,? he wrote. Moffeit also shared details of his latest investigation, ?Trashing the Truth,'' about how police and public agencies nationwide routinely lose and destroy DNA evidence. ?My partner and I carried videocameras with us wherever we went - into evidence rooms that look like junkyards, into prisons where the potentially wrongfully convicted have no way to prove their innocence, into the homes of rape victims and family members of murder victims who are deprived of justice.

?While we're entirely self conscious about our documentary work (you never taught me this!) we now understand the profound power it has to hook viewers into the story. Please check it out when you have time."

In a postscript, Moffeit adds, ?I'm interested in whether you think the use of these investigative web-documentary segments (one for each installment) works. We have absolutely no objectivity about it.?

I did check it out and so should you. He begins by telling a chilling narrative?with beginning, middle and end?testament to his engaging writing style. At OSU in the 1980s, Moffeit and I also wrote creatively, publishing in literary journals. We cared about style that much, and he put that talent to work in videography.

But there was a problem. My new Apple laptop, using the Marriott Hotel?s broadband, would interrupt his video narrative with continuous buffering, cutting off his voice and the video and destroying the story flow.

When are the consultants going to recommend low-cost technology sans eye-candy of the ego so that the afflicted can afford it on their Wal-mart desktops? This is my main gripe with citizen journalism. The disenfranchised of society are closed out of information because those reporting in their name also typically use costly devices and licensed applications that fail to reach the very people in need of the Fourth Estate.

Those who could benefit from Moffeit?s report may be unable to view what I consider Pulitzer Prize-winning content, and if The Post sends in the videography, let?s hope that judges have the patience of a professor to hear a former student?s moving words enhanced by moving images documenting his fundamental truths.

?The Fundamental Truths? essay also generated comments from those with Iowa State connections. Des Moines news anchor and reporter Dan Winters wrote ?solid? about the essay and telephoned me to see a new video that his station did on my observations about distractions in the wireless classroom. The segment featured an interview with me being interrupted when reporter Jon Cahill?s cell phone rings and he answers it.

To his credit, Cahill put that clip in his video that documented texting teens, ear-budded college students, and parents juggling babies and cell phones at the mall.

An Associated Press senior writer wrote??Your article was very powerful??and a famous magazine editor wrote: ?Congratulations on scoring another home run! You make your point by practicing what you preach.?

All of us?professor and practitioner alike--are obligated to protect the Fourth Estate by the fundamental truths of our business, using interpersonal interaction to enhance interactivity, affirming and extending our first principles.

That, by the way, also has been the fundamental truth of Editor & Publisher.

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