The times they are a-Changin’: US newspapers go for bucks

| by Shelton A. Gunaratne

( April 09, 2012, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) When Bob Dylan wrote the song “The times they are a-changin’ in late 1963, I don’t think he had the slightest notion of the technological innovations that have transformed the global society way beyond what Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media pundit, described in 1964 through his catch phrase “medium is the message/massage.”
The British sociologist Jeremy Tunstall asserted in 1977 that media are American because while much of the mass media originated in Europe and elsewhere, the United States dominated global media.
But in 2007, Tunstall saw vast changes in the global media system that impelled him to assert that media were American. Tunstall argued that both the United States and its mass media have lost their previous moral leadership. Instead of sole American control of the world news flow, we now see a world media structure comprised of interlocking national, regional, and cultural systems.
The American newspapers are adapting or have adopted themselves to changing technological changes and reader preferences that the definition of news is no longer the same as what I used to teach as late as the ‘ 90s. Older readers are complaining. The following column that I contributed to my hometown newspaper The (Fargo, ND) Forum (April 8, 2012) explains the kind of debate taking place all over America.
Forum Follows the Trend
Herbert Lansing (April 2, 2012) of Fargo suspects that the late Joe Dill, the longtime editor of The Forum, “must be rolling in his grave” because of the radical changes that the current editor Matthew Von Pinnon has inflicted on the rag that Dill nurtured as a conservative voice to maintain the status quo of the Red River Valley.
Another Dille, bearing the first name Roland, who was a long-time president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, in an informal conversation with me at a retired faculty gathering last month, expressed surprise that The Forum (March 16, 2012) deemed it fit to lead its front page with a story on Nadine Schweigert, a 36-year-old Fargo woman who “married” herself before a crowd of 45 friends and family members at Ecce Gallery.
I came to teach journalism at MSUM in 1985 (when Dille was the president) after a decade of teaching the same field in Australia. Dille posed the query to me sarcastically implying that I must be partially responsible for the radical changes currently reflected in The Forum inasmuch as several of my former students have become decision makers at the newspaper. Von Pinnon took my journalism classes in 1992, online editor Robert Beer in 1993, copy editor Dan Haglund in 1992, and assistant sports editor Hayden Goethe in 2003.
Although Von Pinnon is the editor of The Forum, I don’t believe that the radical changes to which the conservative readers object are his alone. I taught my students that journalism entails bringing about change because progress is not possible if status quo were to prevail. In fact, this is the theme of most American journalism textbooks. That’s why I am a staunch supporter of investigative reporting. Reporting sans investigation is public relations. Because change is a universal truth, journalism must pave the way for the community to adjust to new circumstances.
Buddhist philosophy asserts that everything is impermanent. Resistance to change will result in increasing dukkha (sorrow). But Buddhist philosophy also advocates not to follow the extremes but to follow the Middle Path. The Chinese believe that everything is a composite of the two extremes yin and yang (capitalism v socialism, change v stagnation, autocracy v democracy, etc.). Thus advocates of extremism are creating greater sorrow for themselves. Problem solving is an ongoing search for the best degree of balance between yin and yang.
Now let’s apply Oriental philosophy to analyze the changes that Lansing, Dille and other readers complain about.
 Lansing says that the present editorial board has changed the paper “from a concerned news source to a gossip paper that has but slight concern over accuracy in its reporting.” He sees the transfer of gossip news columnist Tammy Swift to the news desk as a bad omen that points toward further degradation of news.
 Dille expresses his dissatisfaction with sensationalizing of news by running a bizarre story as the front-page lead in capital letters: “WITH THIS RING, I THEE WED … MYSELF.” Another front-page headline in a Sunday edition (March 4, 2012) screamed “FARGO EYES GAYS ON THE GO.”
 Lansing and several others have also objected to The Forum’s new sections She Says and He Says. These are magazine style sections that the newspaper has added at the expense of further cutting down its news hole.
I am sure that Von Pinnon and his editorial buddies are quite aware of the immorality of sensationalizing news because they have learned about yellow journalism in the Hearst-Pulitzer era and the recommendations of the Hutchins Commission in the last century.
They are only following a national trend to increase readership and advertising revenue to preserve their jobs in the context of the predicted demise of print journalism by the fourth decade of this century.
Editors and publishers do attend their annual meetings to discuss national trends. They know that capitalism entails the survival of the fittest. Social responsibility entails infusing some degree of socialism into the practice of journalism by following the Middle Path.
If the editors follow the extreme of a non-existent free-enterprise capitalism, our local newspapers are likely to look more like Murdoch’s recently folded News of the World. The readers must remind the editors that treading the Middle Path is better for the community as a whole rather than resorting to sensational and other devious means to accumulate profits.
(Dr. Gunaratne is professor of mass communications emeritus at MSU Moorhead.)

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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