FOR MEDIA, THE MIDDLE CLASS NOW MAKES ITS OWN
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Over one recent weekend, I experienced how this new communications medium known as the internet is changing the political culture. It's not just the internet by itself, but the ways it is being manipulated by political activists that is key. Now, every little community of interest can have the equivalent of its own local newspaper, and everybody is the star reporter.
The overall effect on politics is not entirely clear as yet, but it is becoming more and more obvious that out of myriad tiny efforts, something huge is being born. How this process will ultimately affect the mainstream media is yet to be determined, but it is clear that the effects will go to the heart of the relationship between the media and its local customers.
Our story begins on a typical Saturday morning. Neighborhood organizers from all over the city gather to discuss their problems and meet with public officials. So far, there is nothing in this story that couldn't have happened in the 1950s, except that instead of the garden club or the Republican Party, it is members of neighborhood councils and a little later in the day, a subgroup oriented towards citywide issues.
Within a few hours though, the differences have become apparent. For one thing, a report has already gone out on a blog. Most of us had never met the blogger before, nor were we aware of his new web site dedicated to comments and gossip about the neighborhood council system here in Los Angeles. But there it is for the whole world to read, a summary and critique of both meetings, available to anybody in this city of nearly four million.
The critical difference that separates present from past is that the story was posted the same day, and the reporter was able to take as much space as he wanted. In this case, it's only 14 paragraphs, but it's a long way from the one inch or so that you would expect to see in a newspaper, even if a newspaper had bothered to cover the meetings. The fact that one private citizen, a civilian journalist as it were, has chosen to cover the proceedings is important in itself, but the fact that he can do so without first starting his own newspaper is the main thing that is new here.
The story continues to unfold: One person who attended the first meeting posts a comment on the original blog story, and in the meanwhile, members of the issues group are posting right and left to its own e-mail discussion site.
By itself, all this back-and-forth is nothing more than a vastly speeded up version of sending letters across London in 1850 or across America by Pony Express in 1860. What makes it different is the linkages afforded by the new system.
To explain this point, let's borrow from the original blog story one more time. I noticed that there was a brief mention of City Council action taken earlier in the week ("Downtown motion on LATC passes as proposed"). By following the links, I found that something ominous is about to happen in the cultural life of the city: The City Council is in the process of forcing its Department of Cultural Affairs to divest itself of the L.A. Theater Center, a playhouse that the city has owned for many years.
One additional mouse click brought up the City Council agenda of May 17, 2005 and with it, its threateningly worded item number 4. What's worse, I discover, is that there is a subsection that threatens to cost my San Pedro region one of its cultural treasures: The City Council motion would allow for divestiture of the Warner Grand Theater, a publicly owned movie palace that serves as a cultural center for the local community.
By Sunday afternoon, San Pedro locals were already reacting to the news by planning a public meeting to protest. They will publicize it using neighborhood council internet sites and e-mail servers. The process has come full circle within the span of a day.
It is interesting to trace the flow of information that began with a meeting in central Los Angeles and will continue with a meeting in San Pedro, but which has been mediated by a collection of technological marvels that didn't even exist until recently. There is the internet itself, but that was just the beginning. The creation of widely available e-mail discussion groups via "listserver" software was the next innovation. The introduction of inexpensive, readily available software to manage web logs, or blogs, as they have become known, is fairly recent. The number of blogs in existence is approaching the astronomical, perhaps as many as 7 million. Blogging and the reading of blogs now makes up a significant fraction of all internet activity.
Even if blogs started out as web diaries (the most self-referential, narcissistic abuse of bandwidth to bedevil the '90s), the technology has been adopted and adapted by the grassroots political sector. The 2004 election made the national blogs famous - Kos and Moveon and all the rest - but local blogging as an adjunct to local politics is where the heavy action is right now.
We have governmental and political information immediately available at a mouse click. We have bloggers and e-mailers by the hundreds to bring it to our attention. We have other web sites to bundle the critical information and bring it to the surface.
All this has been a marvelous opportunity for the people in the middle of the political food chain. The billionaires don't need it, because they already have access to mayors and governors any time they want it. It is the people in the economic middle - the renters and homeowners and small businessmen, the people who manage to make the car payment each month but have to worry about unexpected medical bills - these are the people who are learning to build political clout using the new informational tools. They care about smog, traffic and crime. If they can't write a check for a thousand dollars each time a political action committee calls, they can go to a neighborhood council meeting and try to organize their friends.
And one of the tools they have is the blog. What is emerging out of all this political action is a new form of news media. It is more directed, more immediate, faster and sometimes more knowledgeable than the traditional mainstream media. It can be more knowledgeable because it is being written by the insiders themselves, not by journalistic generalists.
That it is faster is self evident: the blog story on my issues meeting was up the same day. This form of communication is more directed as a matter of course - few outsiders have any interest in it, but those who do have a strong interest.
The fact that this new technology allows the grassroots activists to create a news medium of their own is a watershed event, but it is not without dangers. There are reasons that journalism schools exist, not the least of which are training in proper practice and in ethics. Absent the filtering mechanism provided by editors (not to mention the ultimate filter of not getting hired), there is little to stop the amateurs from publishing lies as truth and outlandish speculation as logical inference. Mostly, it allows amateurish efforts to masquerade as reporting. For example, the blogger who reported on our meeting confused the name of our organization, and continues to make obvious factual errors in succeeding postings.
Curiously, the unprofessional conduct most noticeable in the blogging universe is not so much the unethical but the ungrammatical. For every outlandish claim, there are a dozen misspelled words and a dozen more typos. Right now, the middle ground of the political internet is being held by practiced journalists who manage their own blogs, but the future is uncertain.
At another level, we cannot ignore the decline in circulation numbers for the daily newspapers that more or less parallels the development of the internet as an information source. There is a curious parallel between the emergence of the bloggers, the declining circulation of newspapers, and what happened to industrial development 20 or 30 years ago. As Tom Peters, among other business writers, documented in a series of books (see for example, "In Search of Excellence"), industries that adapted rapidly to customer needs did better. The corollary was that businesses that could succeed in cutthroat industries such as steel fabrication had to become better at meeting the specialized needs of their different customers, and they did this by making exactly what each customer wanted.
In this sense, the daily newspapers are like the old steel mills, turning out vast tonnage, but just the same-old I-beams, not the individualized door panels and trunk lids that go into modern manufacturing. The internet has spawned the informational equivalent of the modern era's boutique steel companies - one blogger reported more about our weekend meeting than all the Los Angeles newspapers combined.
To the news dailies, it was not an event deemed important enough for them to send a paid journalist. To those of us who attended, it was very important. All over the city and all over the country, amateur journalists are reporting on meetings and youth soccer games, creating a different kind of news gathering system and a far different news infrastructure.
The writing styles are vastly different, the layout is different, but most importantly, the journalistic cultures are as different as they can possibly be.