Friday, March 19, 2010

The Latest News on Human Nature


by J. Ross Baughman

Whenever journalists worry about the future of news, I think back to this view of Brooklyn in 1987.

I remember a woman who turned her back on the television when she heard her neighbors' voices float in through the open window. She loved to mind other people’s business, and could tell that their story was going to be pretty terrific. She even brought a pillow over to the window sill to make herself more comfortable.

Well lately, the word on the street is that the news business is in terrible shape. Journalists are under attack from every corner. The media’s entire business model is broken and may not survive.

* The worldwide tally from 2009 showed that more journalists were murdered while in pursuit of stories than ever before, including a single deadly attack on over 30 members of a traveling press corps in Latin America.

* Militant radicals plotted to decapitate Scandinavian journalists who had published a cartoon that criticized their faith. Their goal was to throw those heads down from the roof of the newspaper just to create maximum terror.

* The NBC network, following the path set by major newspapers across the nation, slashed their own newsroom staff in hopes of maintaining high profits.

* The new Republican candidate for New York’s governorship recently waged war on two staffers of his hometown newspaper, forcing editors to re-assign them from covering his career as executive of Suffolk County.

One of my recent editors loved to talk about our work as product, and lectured us on journalism as a business. Without monetization, he argued, there would be no newspapers.

My Brooklyn neighbors would beg to differ; and so would the successful avalanche of social networking illustrated by Wikipedia. It may be possible to slap an ad on just about anything, but making money is not the only reason why people do things. In fact, the underlying reasons for story-telling are much more profound. People always have and always will love stories; and the hunger to see and hear them is no stronger than the urge to show and tell more.

I prefer this more enduring view of human nature.

A much more potent lesson I can remember goes something like this:

Ask yourself what you really love to do, and would likely continue to do whether or not anyone paid you to do it. Then pursue it whole-heartedly. Chances are good that people will recognize your passion, and admire it.

Another possible future for mass communications will surface when those who feel passionately about a story find a natural alliance with people who want that story told widely.

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