On ‘White Knuckles’

I can’t decide whether climate change is likely to be the biggest, and most enduring, story of the century.

Or whether it’s the state of story telling in the first place – and, in particular, of journalism – that is the biggest.

It’s more than just a question of which one is the first to collapse. The fate of the climate, after all, may depend, at least in substantial part, on public understanding of the issues, and therefore on the fate of journalism and the news media. An informed public, the theory holds, could help society do more about the climate challenge than a … let’s be delicate here … less informed one.

As goes journalism, so goes climate change?

Well, not exactly. It’s not like the laws of physics and the long-term temperature of Earth’s atmosphere, after all, will react to live-at-five, “This Just In,” or the incessant “Breaking News” popularized by cable networks.

But let’s face it: Even talking about dying newspapers and vanishing journalism has gotten sort of passé, kind of old-school. Everyone is getting into the act on the future of journalism, in some ways even more than they are, or should be, getting into the act of the future of the climate. The planet, that is, or, some might prefer, civilization.

Given our altogether proper two centuries of avoiding an “entangling relationship” between our free press and our government, one doesn’t know whether to celebrate or head for the hills in light of Washington’s interest in the future of journalism. Was it good news, or bad, that a Senate committee this past spring held hearings on the future of journalism? Should the media rush to participate, or hide their printing presses, now that a Democratic senator from Maryland has introduced legislation to rescue vanishing newspapers before the last one shuts its doors? And what are we to make of this new announcement by the Federal Trade Commission of December 1 and 2 “Future of News” hearings? Will The Washington Post be going the way of AIG and GM? Are we looking at cash for clunker news outlets?

A new business model. That’s the answer. Everyone in journalism is all over it. And all under it too. We need to break the news media – and in particular the large metropolitan daily papers on whose backs so much of the rest of information flow depends – from the albatross of quarterly earnings statements, shareholder expectations, Wall Street growth projections.

We need to demonstrate the obvious, but still elusive, connections between quality independent journalism and satisfactory returns on investment. We need to teach media owners what so many others have previously learned: That given competition from without – read the Internet, World Wide Web, and (most culpable of all) ad-revenues hijacker Craigslist – one has but two obvious choices: Strengthen your product to meet and exceed customer/audience needs, or make your product cheaper … as in pare-back your newsrooms even further.

At some point, it’s important to ask whether journalism, as we have practiced it in America over these centuries, can remain up to the task of reporting independently, knowledgeably, and aggressively on that other “most important story of the century.” We need to ask whether good journalism must end every where our tradition of daily newspapering ends: Is there necessarily a cause-and-effect here?

And we need to ask what will come next if this decade’s journalism trends continue or, one can hardly imagine, even worsens.

For an online publication committed to journalism and communications on climate change, one hardly knows which is in most need of emergency CPR when one hears, as I recently did from a top-level climate researcher, that these are “white-knuckle times.”

White knuckles indeed. Not only in terms of the need to address the potential worst impacts of anthropogenic climate change. But also for the need to somehow improve expert climate communications practices and, through them, broader public understanding of the climate challenges this and future generations face.

And thirdly in terms of mending our communications, news, and information media so we can at last confidently answer the “up to the task?” question posed above.

For if we can’t, what then? More white knuckles? Those alone aren’t likely to fill the bill.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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