I don’t get out much, but on Wednesday night I had a chance to participate in the monthly “Meaningful Movies” program at Ridgefield’s Old Liberty Theater. The subject was “Digital Disconnect,” a documentary based on the book of the same name by Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an expert on how the internet has affected American democracy.
At the risk of spoiling the ending, McChesney sees some serious problems with the way a handful of big technology companies such as Facebook and Alphabet (the parent company of Google and YouTube) now control the flow of information. Not only do these companies capture a huge and growing share of advertising dollars, they have squeezed local media, sometimes to the bursting point.
I was there to provide a sort of victim’s impact statement after the film, along with Cindy Black, head of a Seattle nonprofit called Fix Democracy First.
And there is plenty to be alarmed about. Half of all U.S. newsroom jobs have disappeared since I started at The Columbian. Online information is full of echo chambers, factual misstatements and what President Trump likes to denounce as “fake news.”
So why did I go home feeling a little better than I did when the film started? First of all, I counted at least 45 people at the screening, which I thought was pretty good for a Wednesday night in Ridgefield. I think they represent a strong core of people who see value in carefully reported and edited news and information. If we in the professional news media can find a way to reliably serve these savvy consumers with smart local stories, I think we will survive.
Admittedly, it will take increased financial support by readers. Back in the day, newspapers sold a lot of advertising and were able to price the subscriptions low. Now that the advertising market (and a lot of retail sales) have been gobbled up by Facebook, Google and a handful of other technology companies, readers are forced to pay more for quality news.
But like any other consumer good, there’s a limit on what people will pay. That’s why you see newspapers and other “legacy media” continuing to reduce pages, publication frequency and staffing. My hope and belief is that our industry will someday get enough loyal digital subscribers that we can eliminate this downward trend.
If you want to read more, check out last week’s column about some other innovations in news. We ain’t dead yet!
Fall is always a busy season in the newsroom. Metro is covering elections, Sports has football and other prep sports, and there tends to be a lot of spot news as people return from summer vacations.
This fall is extra busy, because we upgraded a lot of our technology. Last month, we relaunched our main website, www.columbian.com, and last week we changed a bunch of our software, including our email program, which we had used for at least 20 years. Needless to say our four IT staffers have been getting a lot of calls asking “How do I do this?” and “What happened to my…?”
They’ve also been on bug patrol, tackling unanticipated problems including one that randomly keeps finished pages from being output as printing plates. That is a big problem!
Some of the bugs and fixes are obvious to our customers. To speed story loading on our new site, we had added a button that you had to click to read the comments. It just wasn’t working right, so we ditched it this week. Comments are automatically visible again, and our web wizard, Mike Rogers, figured out a way to do it so the stories don’t load too slowly.
It’s getting better every day, but I am reminded of what Ulysses S. Grant wrote at the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864: “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.”