Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lights on and nobody home

By Bill Kraus

How can it be that we live in a low-information society? We have the remnants of the once dominant newspapers, we have TV news, we have radio, and, best of all, we have the incredible internet.

What we don’t have is a unifying, widely-accepted public communication medium.

To put it as colloquially and simply as possible, we don’t have page 5 of the Milwaukee Sentinel. We don’t even have the Milwaukee Sentinel. The communication mantra when we did was that everyone in government read the morning paper, and whatever was on page one or the state news page 5 determined what everyone’s day would be like.

The operative word was “everyone,” including most of the citizenry.

There was TV news with its “if it bleeds, it leads” emphasis and its time constraints.

Radio was all over the place. From the often overlong on public radio, to the breathlessly short on commercial radio, spiced by the talk radio screamers who admit under questioning that they are really in the entertainment business.

This admission characterized the soft spot of broadcast news. They were in the business of delivering listeners and viewers to advertisers.

Which gets us to the crux. Advertisers.

Advertisers paid most of the newspapers’ cost, all of the commercial broadcasters’ costs.

The internet as an advertising/social/information medium was the monster who ate the money the other media needed to pay for all those people who went to hearings which didn’t produce stories, and went to zoning committee meetings, and watched and reported on everything that everyone in the community wanted, even needed, to know.

The newspapers had already taken an advertising revenue hit. They did not benefit from the extraordinary spending on political advertising. TV became the priority campaign medium. The campaign geniuses noticed that they didn’t have to buy space in a medium that was devoting space to covering what they were doing; 30-second emotional ads worked better than long copy idea ads.

The internet’s usurpation of the want ads finished off the newspapers money machine. Who knew how dependent newspapers were on this revenue stream, how much of it would be diverted to the internet providers, and what this diversion would do to the news gathering apparatus on which all the media depended?

The newspapers’ solution seems to be to put what remains of their coverage on the internet itself. This assumes that the iPad and other electronic devices will be the new delivery system for what the democracy needs and wants and what the newspaper model is clearly the best answer to the low citizen information malady.

Don’t bet on it.

You don’t see electronic readers on the plant floor, in the bathrooms, at the kitchen table, in the buses, at the bars.

The trouble is that the internet has destroyed the common, universal medium without replacing it.

Until and unless we get it back or find a replacement, this democracy will suffer from low information and high simplification.

As with too many conundrums, we know what isn’t working and haven’t figured out what will. The sliver of good news is that we also know is it is worth working on.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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