Monday, May 4, 2015

My Contribution to the Decline of Mainstream Media

In 1997, when my kids were all under the age of 5 and I had watched more than my share of purple dinosaur videos with them, I was inspired to write a 1,500 word piece called “Thank You Barney, And Happy Passover, Too.”  If I say so myself, it was a sweet inspiring story about how as adults, we neglect to say the” pleases” and “thank yous“ that were currently being taught to our children by their imaginary video friends.  I explained that holidays such as Passover, with their own imaginary friends and symbols helped reacquaint us with the lessons of humility and appreciation that we had forgotten from childhood.

At the time, I didn't post the story to my blog since the term “blog” had not even been coined until later that year.  Instead I made paper copies of the story and mailed it off to over 50 Jewish themed newspapers across North America.  (I figured that if nobody in the United States would publish it, at least someone in Canada might be willing to show me some consideration.)  As it turned out, however, my piece did get accepted by The Detroit Jewish News for publication in their holiday issue and I received a check for $50.  I even screamed, “I’M PUBLISHED, I’M PUBLISHED,” while waving the check in the air.  I was very impressed with myself and to this day, I still have five copies of the browning newspaper buried in my basement.

As I look back at my first professional story, I appreciate how smart and effective the publishing system was back then.    My place in the literary pecking order had been defined and established by a series of editors or gatekeepers who actually judged me based on the quality of my writing.  If I wanted to move up from Detroit Jews to Chicago Jews or even New York Jews, I had to write better.  Taking it further, if I wanted gentiles to read my work, I really had to step it up.  Such were the barriers to entry.

Flash forward 18 years.  If I had written the piece this year, I simply would have put it up on Blogger, perhaps rereading it once or twice for typos before hitting the post button.  I would have tagged the hell out of it with every term ranging from matzo to dinosaur, shared it with my fellow Dad Bloggers where we would engage in a virtual daisy chain of mutual links that would actually ensure my story would show up in places outside of Detroit.  Shortly thereafter, I would post it on my Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pintrest pages.   And guess what?  It would get read and I would convince myself that I was a writer. 

Taking it further, my story would be part of a smorgasbord of other blogs, memes, lists, opinions and new content which was published that day. And together, our army of  wanna be writers and photoshoppers would compete with stories from The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post –presenting an alternative to the stories that really matter and those that shape our common wisdom and experience.

You see, thanks to the internet, everyone can be a writer and everyone can be a publisher.  And if you have a cat, you can be a video journalist.  And since everyone can be a publisher or a videographer, there are no editors to judge whether your article actually meets meaningful standards.  There are no gatekeepers to reject you from every publication except for one in Detroit.  All you need is a publish button and your words are out there.  With some knowledge of Search Engine Optimization and social media, you can even find yourself an audience.

In fact, viral news outlets such as BuzzFeed, Reddit,  Memebase specialize in the lists, memes, and snarky chats that have become the cyber equivalent of fart jokes and Mad Magazine.   What’s worse is they are giving the quality mainstream media a run for their money because while their investment in infrastructure and socially sourced material is minimal, their content is being gobbled up by those that have come to appreciate digestible sound bytes rather than something more substantial.

When I was in the 4th grade, we would read the NY Times once a week during social studies class.  I will always remember the lesson when Mrs. Hinton taught us how to patiently fold the paper so we could read it in crowded places.  She explained that it took significant effort to read what was inside The Times, but it was worth it.

Later in life, I always had a good feeling when I would ride the subway and see rows of commuters folding the newspaper like Mrs. Hinton taught us as they absorbed the stories and issues that came alive in the pages of The Grey Lady.   People would talk about what they read.  And they would remember it.  Today, our reading habits are so fragmented that thoughtful discussions among friends and colleagues has been replaced by casual sharing and liking.

Circulation is way down for The Times and they are involved in a fight for survival. Meanwhile my blog has reached 6,000 pairs of eyeballs which is how things are measured these days.  It’s nice to be read and I appreciate your eyeballs (I really do) but I miss a time when being published was really something special.        

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