OBSERVING THE OBSERVER – NOT!

On December 16, The Uncertain Future of News, (WCPN Stream,) joined host Dan Malthrop with Lauren Rich Fine ContentNext, Kent State University and Ted Gup Case Western Reserve University to discuss the imploding old print newspaper media. The discussion was interesting but it didn’t really capture the confluence of trends, one of which is most germane: that people increasingly are reading less. This trend is a generational trend. This noted, if you’re interested in the business of news and newspapers’ role in providing information, it’s a worthwhile 45 minutes.

At about 11 minutes in Ms. Fine responds to the host’s mention of the example of local free newspapers The Lakewood Observer, (the ‘mothership,’) and The Heights Observer, (spawned by the mothership.) Both exemplify the mostly volunteer ethos of amateur community journalism. However, after praising their ability to “develop community consciousness” Professor Gup comments from the perspective of the old school professional model, that such community newspapers don’t have the resources to pursue “real” investigative journalism.

And then the discussion turned back toward analysis of the faltering old print news. Listening to this segment, I chuckled to myself. What a missed opportunity! Then, as the discussion returns to what might be new models for news delivery, the panel never circles back to the vital local model of the Observer, which, in Lakewood’s case, has been thriving for three-and-a-half years.

In an organic discussion focused on the old media it is not surprising that an active new model gets short shrift. But, Mr. Gup’s acute point about community journalism, that it can develop community consciousness, could have been deployed to ask why the old media doesn’t do this, and why community journalism can do this. The criticism of community journalism from the perspective of old media can be inverted: what advantages The Lakewood Observer and disadvantages, for example, The Plain Dealer from the perspective of the model of the new volunteer, “post-professional,” community media?

Scrolling back to the genesis of The Lakewood Observer offers a crucial clue. I was there and nobody talked about emulating conventional newspapers. The Observer model was not born of thinking about news provision as much as it was born of thinking about community consciousness and its revitalization. My guess is that old newspapers don’t think about this at all.

Although Gup’s point about community newspapers not having resources to, as it were, drag resistant institutions into court, is true, he never discusses the type of investigation community journalists can unleash. From the perspective of the efficiency of resources, it’s obvious that the work product of free correspondents is much more efficient than the million dollar model of conventional newspapers.

But, there’s more.

Community newspapers can really raise a high velocity and high volume ruckus. The key point here is that–what I’ll term–the community consciousness model is itself the product of local journalists really having a stake in the community, of their direct engagement, and subjectivity rather than objectivity. This is contrasted with The Plain Dealer’s stake being quite different, more professional, more detached, and resulting in ‘just another story’ at a scale oriented toward a wide readership as opposed to a local, (or micro,) readership.

Gup mentioned, later, how local powers can gauge and probably ignore this ruckus. This caused me to say to myself that the professor needs to do his homework on this point, and do it in Lakewood. The community consciousness model doesn’t aspire to implement an ephemeral, objective, string of investigative stories. It’s model is much better disposed to sustain a point of inquiry and, sometimes, attack. In Lakewood, the paper instigates, and the community sustains, much of this unfolding in the continuing discussions on the paper’s online forum. By the way, the forum is itself an interpersonal form of community journalism. The forum focuses and sustains community concerns. The genius of the Observer’s model is that it’s aggregation has to do with aggregating consciousness.

Circling back, although Professor Gup’s later point about opinion being cheap to produce, facts expensive to produce, is true enough, at the beginning of the Lakewood Observer project, we discussed how a certain type of journalist, by virtue of their engagement, and intensity, and–indeed–subjectivity, would be in a good ‘affectual’ position to loosen facts from resistant institutions and personages. This personality factor elevates emotional commitment to a community to be a key component of tenacity. This recognizes that subjectivity, in a rich social psychological context, is pragmatic and very useful.

The Lakewood Observer, since its beginning, is in the position to always hash out, re-hash, reconfigure, its model and analyze anew the system it’s a part of. This nimbleness is also a crucial feature of its ability to shape-shift and redeploy volunteer journalists in real time. After all, the unpaid journalist many times will only pursue what interests them; another point of ‘affect’ and ‘energetics.’

My uninformed guess is that old model newspapers aren’t likely to engage their own human resources in ongoing meta-discussions and pragmatic discussions, both enabled to deeply reflect on their predicament. There’s too much money at stake and the stakes are driven too deeply. If this is true, it could be hard to have a deep dialogue about one’s model, especially one that can address the question of community consciousness, and its ‘raising’ in a profound and post-professional manner!

I’ll urge Professor Gup, if he hasn’t already, and Mr. Malthrop, to investigate the Observer model closely. The Observer may observe the same terrain as the big city newspaper, but it does it with different eyes and a bigger ‘unpaid’ consciousness.

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