January 9, 2011
By Bill Kraus
Thirty years ago there was no Facebook, Twitter, internet. Blogs and bloggers and blogging were not even words.
There was, however, a communication system for elected officials. It was run by journalists who were more ubiquitous than beloved. Most of them worked for newspapers. Two Wisconsin papers were distributed statewide. No other medium made any claim or serious effort except public broadcasting to go beyond its own local or regional markets and audiences. The Madison papers, for example, have always behaved as if the Columbia County line just above the city of Portage was the northernmost boundary of Wisconsin.
A governor who wanted to communicate with his entire constituency had only to open the doors to his office and spout. He had the bully pulpit. The pews were full--of reporters.
Those pews are much less full now. There are no statewide newspapers. The only reporters trying to reach a statewide audience work for the Associated Press and public radio. The former deliver news to their local and regional client papers and broadcasters and are in the position of a teacher who sends notes home with third-grade students. Delivery to the intended audience is somewhere south of sporadic.
This nice, orderly, controlled system where news was reported, validated, and made available to anyone who was interested in anything or everything going on in the state capital and had the price of a subscription is mostly gone.
Today there are many, many communications systems. Websites, blogs, social networks are sending mostly opinions out in firehose quantities. The illusion is that this is some kind of communicators’ heaven. On closer examination it’s more of a nightmare. Putting aside the fact that a significant part of the population does not have the devices needed to access any of these new channels of communications, there is no assurance that those who are connected to the internet are consuming what the public officials are delivering.
News consumption was always voluntary. But the delivery system, while short of being universal, probably got to everyone who really wanted to know and delivered a glancing blow of information to the rest, which was better than nothing.
If you regard the broad news distribution of 30 years ago as a pasture, then the new user driven media is a series of silos.
The governor who got the attention of all the creatures in the pasture now has to go to all the silos in hopes of being admitted. The silos which used to be geographically challenging are now also subject challenging. How many hits is the “governor’s office” website, Facebook page, Twitter feed likely to get? Not as many as those about the Green Bay Packers or any other run-of-the-mill celebrity in any field of choice. Not even as many as the “talk radio” entertainers who clutter the public airwaves.
The other problem with the silo system is the silos are filled more with opinions than with the kinds of facts that we call news when they are reported by journalists.
At a cosmic level we seem to have gone from a system where there were too many reporters chasing too few stories and their sources to a world where there are too many stories not being reported because there are two few reporters chasing them.
All this technology is a gift to all of us blabbermouths looking for an audience and for ways to be heard. Not so much for leaders who are trying to explain to their followers what they are doing and why and why, particularly, it is good for the followers.
What the leaders seem to be left with is a bully pulpit facing empty pews. Not so bully after all.
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