Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Two Paths of Journalism's Future

Above, journalist Miles O'Brien (center) interviews Astronaut Loren Shriver (right) and former flight director Bill Reeves (left) of United Space Alliance during the May 11 launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on its mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope

There seem to be two paths that the future of journalism takes these days. The first, annoying, self-serving path is the political involvement in what’s happening in the world of journalism. The second, more exciting path is what journalists are doing to tell stories in new ways.

On the first path Friday, the Arizona Attorney General filed suit against the Tucson Citizen and Gannett Corporation Friday to prevent the company from closing the paper. Arizona AG Terry Goddard will lose his case, but he’ll get attention for “defending the public interest.”

The paper has been published since 1870, but its readership has fallen to about 17,000 recently. So Goddard wants to force a company to pay to print a newspaper fewer and fewer people are reading, even though Gannett plans to continue publishing the paper online. He claims the end to a hard copy of the Tucson Citizen violates the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act. Goddard would have us believe this law signed by President Nixon is still relevant in the Internet Age. Whatever.

Meanwhile, real journalists are working in new and exciting ways to bring information to the public. And from the evidence I’ve seen, the public is responding. My friends over at covered their second Shuttle launch last week with seven hours of coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen guests. About 25,000 people watched via the Web, most in the US, but nearly a quarter of the audience was international including Canada, China, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Russia, Estoniaand my favorite Togo.

The Launch Cast Team led by veteran journalist Miles O’Brien, Astronaut Leroy Chiao and co-anchor David Waters gave the best coverage of the launch of any media covering the event. Their experience was clear when there were several glitches on ascent and the audience got real-time interpretation of the anomalies.
"The barbarians are through the gates - and on the palace grounds. The Big Old Media Palace is burning - and webcasts like ours have helped start the fire. And, you know, it's a lot more fun being a barbarian." -Miles O'Brien isn’t covering the launch out of the goodness of their hearts; they are building a legitimate business enterprise by delivering information to the audience where the audience is at. In this case the Internet.

The advertisers include many of the companies involved in the Space Program including United Space Alliance (the Shuttle’s prime contractor and one of my clients), ATK (the maker of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and most of the tools used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope), Lockheed Martin (the maker of the Shuttle’s orange external tank. LM is one of my clients, but in a different part of its business, not the Space Systems) and the Coalition for Space Exploration (a group dedicated to exactly what its name implies).

One of the challenges for companies involved in space exploration is the lack of opportunity in mainstream media coverage. NASA gets plenty of coverage as do the astronauts.

Co-anchor David Waters (right) interviews Mark Nappi of United Space Alliance during the launch of STS-125
But with most news organizations limited by reduced staff or editorial constraints, it can be a challenge for those companies to get their message out.

Jeff Carr, Director of Communications and Public Relations at United Space Alliance (USA) says the new format gives the public a new way to both get involved and get information about the space program.

“What I find compelling, as a strategic communicator, is the opportunity to reach a mass audience without the typical time and format constraints of television news. Engaging the public in dialogue using a blend of social and new media makes the whole experience much richer and more satisfying than standard media,” Carr says.

Any company that advertises does so with its own interests in mind. But just as newspapers served the public interest while simultaneously serving the interests of their advertisers, so too with “United Space Alliance is really proud to have taken a leading role in helping to advance this new cutting- edge approach to public outreach and engagement,” says Carr. So, businesses help serve the public interest by funding journalists cover stories that they're passionate about. Everybody wins.

So back to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Since he felt compelled to use a 1970 law to back his court filing, let me go back to 1941.

Duke Ellington was playing live broadcasts from the Casa Manana in Los Angeles, but couldn’t play his own compositions because of a dispute between radio stations and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). So Duke’s son Mercer wrote songs for his dad. One of Mercer Ellington’s songs became one of Duke’s most popular.

I doubt Goddard knows the title. If he did, he probably wouldn’t have filed the lawsuit. The song is called “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

It doesn't take a genius to know that Duke's songs age much better than a 1970 law designed to protect evening newspapers from the then infant television news business.

Apparently, it doesn't take a genius to be Attorney General of Arizona either.

Bill Salvin

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