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The web, the paper

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Doug Thompson

The web, the paper

How ironic, to wonder about the future of my profession while my work is read by more people than ever.

I’m small fry in the writing world, yet the Internet gives me readers in Iraq among our troops. I’ve received e-mail from more states than I can recall. I’ve had a column of mine read aloud at a conference of child welfare advocates in Colorado.

All the while I wonder if I’ll still be able to make a living at this in a few years.

My greater fear is that the professionals will become the hired guns of corporations.

That fear struck home when Fayetteville’s own “The Iconoclast” blog disappeared this week.

“The Iconoclast” was never a substitute for day-in, day-out coverage of city and regional events. It was, however, a vigorous and insightful critic of local institutions including the local media. And now it’s gone without a goodbye or explanation.

Blogs have added new vigor to reporting. The popular ones are pungent and pithy and come from a clear point of view.

It’s funny. Americans trust an outlet with a clear point of view that they agree with, while distrusting the one that tries to be objective, suspecting them of trying to hide its bias.

What happens when the public watchdog role falls to volunteers working on their own time when the entities that bear watching can hire pros?

What is a free country to do when the only way to make a living at dispensing information is to work for those who don’t want balanced or skeptical information dispensed?

 Media’s harshest critics argue that every media outlet has bias and an agenda. That’s too simplistic to be true and we all know it.

Blogs don’t cover planning commissions, a friend and fellow professional noted Sunday. They don’t run photos of Little Leaguers that you can put in scrapbooks either. They cover politics and culture, usually with a clear point of view that readers find attractive. Some of us, as readers, are attracted to contrary points of view. I’m afraid that’s not as common as it should be.

Somebody’s rewriting a Wikipedia article about the company he works for right now. Somebody else is arguing for the company line in comments on a blog that isn’t following the company line. Some professional journalist is applying for a job at a government agency he or she used to help hold accountable.

We were already outgunned. I cover politics. Professionals who are paid more than I am already keep track and spin me. Soon they’ll master the art of producing Web sites that look independent and challenging but are anything but. And they’ll get paid for it. They really have nothing to do all day but post. They’ll have market research consultants to help.

I don’t hold professional journalists in higher view than I do some of the dedicated Internet independents out there. Nobody can after Internet reporting brought down Dan Rather. All I’m saying is that there’s no source of independence quite like a regular paycheck from somebody whose main interest is accuracy. Newspapers may have their biases arising from their need to sell ads, but overall they have the independence to report on the great bulk of business that matters to the public with some real detachment. Even the best self-starters either don’t have that or will, someday, stop and go find a living.

I’ve said for years that if the Internet really takes off, newspapers will lose their biggest cost. The cost of the newsroom is minimal compared to the cost of producing and distributing the physical product.

I’ve often told the story of how presidential candidate Sen. John McCain stopped off briefly in Rogers. Fifty reporters, most who traveled with him, covered the news conference and wrote or broadcast 50 stories saying the same thing. It couldn’t last.

We can all use a leaner, meaner press that has more emphasis on city hall than the White House. Just be willing to pay something for it.

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