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Policinski: Free press future: Back to the ‘basics’ in a new way

There’s no one “key” to why so many believe that journalists missed the rise and election of Donald Trump as president — and that’s a good thing to keep in mind for the future.

There’s no easy answer to why so many Americans are so critical of the press, so distrustful of news reports and so convinced — particularly post-election — that journalists are out of step and out of touch.

And yet, a fair amount of speculation in print and on television — including great gobs of gassy talk show speculation — seems focused around ideas that it was Facebook foolishness, retweets of “fake news” or even “the death of facts” that were responsible for Trump’s rise from pre-primary punch line to being president-elect.

Some post-election retrospectives did provide valuable critiques of at least the top-level, network and national newspaper performance during the 2016 campaign. Common threads: Too many paid too much attention to too many meaningless polls, a fixation on personality over substance and too little reporting on the issues that mattered.

But still, the search for “the” reason goes on. The Washington Post even gave up serious real estate on its pages to a purveyor of blatantly false stories, including one claiming that the Pope had endorsed Trump. When asked the vacuous question “Did you personally help elect Donald Trump,” even this admitted faker had to say, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I did or not. I don’t know.” Neither would anyone reading the item.

And then there is the flap over “Hamilton,” in which Trump tweeted a criticism of a cast member’s on-stage, post-performance lecture on diversity aimed at departing Vice President-elect Michael Pence. Recalls another play, of another time: “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Nearly a week later, far too much print, TV and Web space continue to chatter on about it, diverting public attention and scarce resources and time from the actual news of the day around the incoming administration: Cabinet selections, domestic and foreign policy positioning and more around the transition from Obama to Trump.

So, if not chasing down spurious claims of how the election was won, or rehashing an unscripted “Hamilton” moment, what’s a journalist — and those who own the means of journalism — to do? A few thoughts:

Step away from the screen and deal with an obsessive interest in tweets, bleats and social media nonsense. Give readers and viewers and listeners and users some real news to resend to friends, about things that matter: jobs, education, health and faith, as starters.

For those who constitute a free press, recognize that your strength and your appeal rest in representing those who support your work through subscriptions, fees or contributions. Recognize that such fluff and trivia are not the stuff of lasting relationships with consumers, to be lost in the glare of the next shiny bright thing.

Lest this seem too much like a call to return to post, one final bit of advice: Innovate. Really innovate. In its newest edition, the industry publication Editor &Publisher offers a glimpse into the fast-changing newsroom of The Washington Post, now rife with online tools and methods of reaching news consumers that include a “lightning-fast” mobile website, and programs like “Bandito, a home-grown tool that lets editors publish articles with as many as five different headlines and photos to figure out which is the most engaging to readers.”

The Post, propelled by the investment of owner Jeff Bezos (who also owns Amazon) is not ignoring the bottom line while pursuing the future. As Editor &Publisher reports, “Then there’s Arc, the Post’s homemade content management system, which they have begun licensing out to other news organizations,” in what could be a $100 million-a-year business.

Surely such new tools like video and gaming technology — and innovative ways of revising the basic structure of news outlets, from a return to local owners who can accept profit margins that chill Wall Street investors to publicly supported, collaborative newsgathering — can bring credible information to a public that needs it.

There also is the new and pervasive presence of information sources like Google News — which can bring amazing amounts of core information in partnership with existing and yet-to-come news providers.

Yes, there’s no one “key” to a return to a thriving news industry — and to quickly dealing with the loss of thousands of talented, experienced journalists by disruption of their industry’s financial model.

But to focus on or be distracted by the trivial is to self-define in the same terms. It’s also to break faith with the nation’s founders, who accepted and protected an opinionated, partisan — often, even opposition — press because the role and those views were rooted in the discussion of the serious matters of self-governance.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac

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