Is and ought 

Local debate rages, cooler heads do not prevail.

An old political science professor of mine said that everything really comes down to the difference between “is” and “ought.” You either think of the world the way it is, or the way it ought to be. It shapes the way individuals, and the societies they live in, think about life, define problems and create solutions. The idea is that realists think in terms of “is” and idealists think in terms of “ought.” We could talk about “oughts” all day long, and I tend to be an “ought” person, but the fact of the matter is we deal with what “is” every day.

One “is” that I, and many in my business, deal with is the current state of the media industry and what that will look like in the future. I think it's safe to say that no one knows for sure and that has sparked a rather lively, if somewhat uncivil, debate amongst some in our local media community.

The fracas, if you want to call it that, started when Arkansas News Bureau columnist John Brummett wrote a column about the recent congressional hearings on the future of the newspaper industry. Former publishers, one-time reporters and bloggers all testified about the state of the newspaper biz.

Brummett quoted at length from a former newspaper reporter-turned-Hollywood-writer who spoke about the need for professional journalists to counter an anyone-can-come blogosphere. Brummett's column drew some fairly strong criticism from a couple of “brash and sullen” (his words) local bloggers who took issue with the column and the ideas expressed therein.

The Arkansas Project's David Kinkade referred to Brummett as “very sad” and Blake Rutherford, author of Blake's Think Tank blog, said of Brummett's column, “Arkansans Deserve Better.” Indeed.

Brummett laments, as most columnists do, the loss of “newspaper reporting as a trained and vital profession.” The local “blogging gnats” (again Brummett's words) lambaste his position as one held by an aging and irrelevant dinosaur. Of course, who is right, no one yet knows, but I believe the correct answer is somewhere in the middle.

There is an argument to be made for the newspaper journalist, that storied, fedora-wearing character and his/her antagonistic distrust of power. There is also the case of the local “misfit blogger,” those who tirelessly cover matters important to their local community that others may ignore.

Both Brummett and the gnats are right. The paid, professional journalist is needed, as are the community bloggers. But in the world of over-the-top Internet back-and-forth something is getting lost, and that is the shared concern for the truth, whatever that is or ought to be.

“I just don't understand why they seem so pissed off,” Brummett says. “And I'm not yet convinced of their brilliant expertise, but it's interesting. Having somebody stalk you and critique your column line by line can be helpful.”

It seems that in this rather heated conversation, each side is talking past the other. Newspaper veterans think that if the newspaper goes under, so do they. But if you listen closely to what the blogosphere is saying, that's not what they desire or predict.

“An individual blog is not going to replace a single newspaper,” Kinkade says. “But they're not only competing against me. They're competing against me and the Arkansas Times and The City Wire and Craig's List. They're competing against the entirety of the online space. So what you have is a much richer media ecosystem, I think.”

One astute reader of Rutherford's blog noted that in the absence of a paycheck, it's going to be hard to ensure that anyone sits through a city council meeting, diligently takes notes and reports on what happens in a timely fashion. I tend to agree with that. The deadline pressure of the news business ensures that these matters are brought to the public's attention in a timely fashion. If reports are never filed, citizens might not be alerted to a seemingly minute, but actually serious problem. And it's easy to get bored at a legislative hearing. If it's your job, however, you have to pay attention.

But even if we're talking about the “is” side of things, the new media landscape should be encouraging to those old-fashioned, ought-oriented folks. Tales abound of active, interested citizens covering their local city hall or neighborhood interests with more fervor than any reporter ever would or could have. That might be where the paycheck argument falls short.

Even with strong, community journalism, though, you need trained journalists to be part of the conversation, but who says the two groups can't co-exist. There's an answer to this problem somewhere, and it will not likely be found in the back-and-forth of name-calling and misplaced derision. There ought to be a serious conversation about this.



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