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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) When it comes to depth, long live newspapers

November 20, 2011

I dipped my toe into the Twittersphere, or whatever the hell you call it, for the first time last week.
I had been resisting it, and I still can’t say for sure what it was that caused me to give in. I’m still not sure it is the force for good its boosters claim it to be. In fact, I am pretty much convinced of exactly the opposite. If it is not part of a fiendish scheme to dumb our country down by so dispersing our sources of information that it dilutes the quality of the knowledge that we purport to glean from it (worst case scenario), it is at the very least a diabolical plot to keep us tethered to laptops, smartphones and all kinds of other electronic devices, never able to stop compulsively consulting with them for more than a half hour at a time, day or night.
(I could never have used that last sentence on Twitter; it is more than three times longer than the amount of characters you get on that site to complete a “thought.”)
Tweeties, Facebook postings, blogs are all of a piece, a type of do-it-yourself information service where anybody and everybody can blurt out whatever they like — well-researched facts and reasoned analysis, incorrect data and ill-informed opinion, outright lies, malicious rumor and innuendo, or just plain goofy silliness — into an electronic medium that treats each of these as the same and equal.
Call me a Luddite or a troglodyte, whatever; I have heard my outlook on this derided as being “a dead tree guy in a pixel world.” So be it. I don’t apologize for sticking up for substance over speed and whatever other virtues this Twitter and blog stuff is supposed to possess.
All these things are, I submit, particularly bad for the news media.
For one thing, we who are supposed to be gathering and reporting the news — keeping our eyes on the government and the politicians who run it — wind up spending far too much of our time with our heads up each other’s backsides, seeing what everyone else has been blogging and Tweeting to make sure we are keeping up. Everyone is breaking their necks to squirt a three-paragraph News McNugget out into cyberspace 15 seconds before the other guy. That is what passes for a journalistic achievement these days.
It threatens to make journalism a mile wide and an inch deep. What about perspective? What about background? What about analysis and judgment? Are we destined to lose — or, more accurately, discard — all of that in the service of delivering instantaneous information?
Twitter is an excellent medium for: OMG I cnt belve Demi+Ashton brkng up. But to convey important information or news? I just don’t think so.
And it is not only the people who report the news who are leading us into the emptiness and weightlessness of cyberspace; newsmakers are getting into the act as well. When they have information to convey, they may no longer send out press releases or anything like that. They want and expect you to “follow” them on Twitter and “friend” them on Facebook to find out what they are doing.
It used to be that you had to read a newspaper or two (maybe three for us real news junkies) over breakfast to get yourself ready for the day. Now you have to do the newspapers, visit literally dozens of blogs, follow and friend and whatever else it is you do to people on social networking sites, and keep rechecking each of those every hour or two.
When do the people who do all this stuff eat? Do they ever have time to use the bathroom? Or do they blog and tweet and follow and friend in there, too?
Should that have been an uppercase T in Tweet just then? Not only do you have to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort keeping track of all this nonsense, but there’s a whole #@$%&* etiquette you have to learn as well, not to mention mastering all the mystifying and confusing abbreviations, contractions and acronyms.
I broke my Twitter virginity following two colleagues I know to be giants of Rhode Island’s tweet/blog world, Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio and Ted Nesi of WPRI.com. (I should say here that Nesi in particular is an exception to what I said about a mile wide and an inch deep; he often offers incredibly detailed information — complete with charts and graphs, for Pete’s sake — on a wide array of issues in his Nesi’s Notes blog. He was an absolute monster of pension crisis coverage.)
But choosing to start off by following those particular guys was probably an error. They are apparently connected to everybody in Rhode Island and many others beyond our borders. Literally within a few hours after clicking on to follow Ted and Ian, my e-mail was deluged by more than 50 messages saying people were now following me. Following me? Does that mean I’m obligated to lead them somewhere? I will have to mull the possibilities. If I thought I really had that many followers, I might try to lead an uprising of some sort.
If worthwhile, important information is going to be dispersed all over cyberspace, how is the everyday news consumer supposed to keep up with it? Is everybody expected to click on scores of websites every day just to find out what is going on, never mind get all sides of an issue not just the viewpoint of those they agree with, the way Fox News Channel viewers seem to?
I acknowledge that I am not completely unbiased on this, but I think the average news consumer who does not spend all day with a computer on his or her lap and an iPhone in his or her hand is still best served by reading a newspaper daily. The news is gathered by professionals, compiled and fact-checked (not to mention proofread; have you seen the spelling on the Internet?) by editors and delivered in useable form, along with sports scores, comics and supermarket ads.
Trying to get your day’s news and information off the Internet is like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose.
Surfing the web is fun for diversion and to just see what you can find randomly is fine. But for the Average Joe to keep up with his town, state, nation and world, newspapers and magazines are still the way to go.
Long live dead trees!

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