The Future of News

Ryan Thornburg

Posts Tagged ‘UNC-TV

Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

Sitting next to News & Observer editor John Drescher last Friday during a forum about the Triangle’s media landscape, I had to feel a bit sorry for him. Of the nearly 20 representatives of news media in the region, he was the most prominent representative of the mainstream media and drew all the fire from the bloggers, entrepreneurs, do-gooders and pontificators who had him easily outnumbered and whose smaller organizations had often beaten his Goliath newsroom on important stories.

But I also envied Drescher. He was also the only one at the table who had ever dropped $200,000 of his company’s money on an investigation of a state agency. And the only one who knew what it was like to spend four years pinging the government for public records before he had a story solid enough to sell to his subscribers and advertisers.

One other thing made Drescher an enviable character in the Triangle’s media ecosystem. Despite their valid criticisms of increasing gaps in The News & Observer’s coverage of our communities many noted without irony in their voices, the small, independent and non-profit news operations had the most impact on public policy when they got the attention of Drescher’s paper or one of the local television stations.

And that made me realize that if our state is going to retain its generation-long reputation as a home for journalism that gives voice to the voiceless and holds powerful people accountable, then we must find a way to foster dozens of new and diverse tributaries of news and information that flow into the big, slow-moving mainstream media. Without the tributaries, the MSM seems likely to evaporate entirely. Without a larger channel into which they can empty, the tributaries seem likely to overwhelm us with a flood of disconnected datapoints.
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What’s the Demand for Downballot News?

One of the partners for my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class this semester was the N.C. Center for Voter Education, long known for its efforts to change the way judges are elected in North Carolina as well as the voting guide it creates in partnership with UNC-TV. That voting guide was the first place I turned for information on candidates in yesterday’s statewide primary for seats on the Court of Appeals. I just presumed that no newspaper had covered the race.

But you know what happens to you and me when you assume things, so I checked it out. Turns out I was mostly right. I’m going to put together a summary of information that got reported about this race, but it got me wondering about this question: How much information – and what kind – of information do North Carolinians need about downballot statewide primary races? Are they getting? From where? Or why not?

After all, if journalism’s worth saving it’s only because of the impact it has on public life. I’ve long been curious about the connection between information and citizen participation. The presumption – not always right, as Samuel Popkin and Michael Schudson might tell you – is that the more information voters have the “better decisions” they will make.

A little more than 700,000 people voted in those races. Some of them might have wanted more information than others? How many had enough? How many would have changed their votes if they had had different information?

And, if we can figure out who needs this information – and what information they need – is there any business model that gets it to them? Do we need independent reporting on downballot races like this or is informing voters the job of the State Board of Elections and the candidates themselves?

Written by Ryan Thornburg

May 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm

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