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News and Views

September 23, 2005

The Internet, like talk radio, has enabled people to broadcast to the world without leaving one’s chair. But before opinions gush forth, someone ideally has gone out and gathered enough information to report events that set tongues a-wagging. Although that’s a quaint idea in many quarters these days, as radio and TV talking heads speculate for hours before anyone has any facts.

I work in the public service end of the news business, which delivers reams of news at a cost to readers of far less than a Starbucks cup of coffee or for free on the Internet. Getting the story can mean dashing into dangerous places—fire scenes, floods, toxic waste dumps—or enduring truly boring places, like school board meetings, and digging out telling facts and first-hand observations on a tight deadline.

Newspapers also convey reams of opinions—including in news columns. News stories are frequently framed to fit the views of editors who cut and paste, polish, and often rewrite reporters’ copy. Oft-times the reworking is an improvement. Sometimes it skews the story or mangles essential facts. In any case, reporters aren’t allowed to have opinions. We’re hired to be objective observers.

But that tradition is heading the way of the typewriter. Conveying timely news is no longer enough. With the rise of the Internet, news managers are desperately trying to hold onto paying customers. Eying the bottom line, many are laying off reporters. Newsroom survivors are told to do more to grab readers “by the throat” (an actual quote) long enough to smack their lips and get hooked on the ads that underwrite the news.

Attention-deficit readers nowadays demand—editors tell reporters—a page-turning, fast-reading, entertaining saga with an authoritative point of view, plus a breakout box that tells them what it means. Increasingly, the source for that “fast facts” box is an Internet web site.

The way things are going, I may be downsized to my home computer chair, relegated to posting unedited, tongue-wagging, blogger goodies for an ever shrinking set of news purveyors to lift, in hopes of hooking consumers by the gills.

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