James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Local media zombies: Producing news fit for a museum

Posted by James McPherson on April 11, 2009

However much marijuana Woody Harrelson may have just smoked, I don’t believe his claim that he mistook a photographer for a zombie. On the other hand, if he were talking about dying local news organizations–which stumble on zombie-like as if they were already dead–Harrelson might have a case.

A few hours from now I’ll take part in a panel discussion about “the changing media landscape in the Inland Empire.” The 3 p.m. panel will be sponsored by (and held at) Auntie’s Books, the best independent bookstore in the Inland Northwest, and is one of many events during this year’s Eastern Washington University Get Lit! literary festival.

For today’s forum I’ll join editors from our local daily and weekly, someone from our independent community-owned radio station, and a local magazine editor. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know I won’t be an optimistic voice on the panel.

Coincidentally, today happens to be the one-year anniversary of the re-opening of the Newseum, called “the world’s most interactive museum.” Despite some deserved criticism, the “news museum” had a successful first year. The Newseum may have been about the only success associated with news in the past year, and even it suffered staff cuts. On the other hand, as noted with yesterday’s post, who hasn’t? One of my biggest criticisms of the museum is that the $20 admission price is too high–providing yet another barrier between the reasons for a free press and the people who would most benefit from robust news media.

Because the media have done such a poor job of making a case for themselves, and for the First Amendment, most Americans don’t care if the media zombies disappear. Those who listen to talk radio or Fox News may even cheer the deaths–failing to recognize that those zombies may be all that stands between democracy and even more dangerous monsters.

Next day update: The panel got a good turnout and the time flew by, with thoughtful participation from the audience. It included one of my current students, two former students, one of my favorite grad school professors, assorted community activists, a few colorful and passionate locals (including one who kept referring to the Inlander as “the Islander”) and academics and students from at least five area colleges–the kind of mix that makes Spokane a far more interesting city than I imagined before arriving here nine years ago.

Thanks to any of you who participated (even if by just showing up), to the Spokesman-Review’s Ryan Pitts for moderating (and for gracefully handling the insults–some deserved, some not–aimed at his employer), and especially to Jasmine Davey at Auntie’s and Get Lit! coordinator Dani Ringwald for putting it all together.

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12 Responses to “Local media zombies: Producing news fit for a museum”

  1. Fact is that nearly all bloggers are posting comments heard through the mainstream media. Good luck with your panel event.

  2. zelda said

    I am sure the discussion will be interesting….but then on the other hand.
    The first amendment part should provide some brain cell flurries………….but on the other hand.
    The twenty dollars to enter the museum is a stumbling block again preventing the average joe from it’s message…………..but on the other hand.
    Blah blah blah………

  3. James McPherson said

    I’m sure there’s a point to your comment. On the other hand, I’m not sure what it is. 🙂 Thanks as always, Zelda, for continuing to take the time to read and comment regularly.

  4. "bob" said

    I think Zelda was making fun of panel discussions and how they are boring, with people saying one thing and then saying “… but then on the other hand”. The only interesting panel discussions are the ones you find at theonion.com, but that is because they are fake, and are deliberately full of jokes and not too long to sit through. That is probably the reason the newspapers are doing so badly: they are full of a bunch of long, boring stories all full of facts, and most people would rather do something other than spend money on a publication they probably won’t even bother to read more than a bit of, especially in times of economic crisis when they need to cut back on spending on unnecessary things like newspapers. Newspapers also have editorial pages full of other people’s opinions, but who cares about other people’s opinions? Most people only care about their own opinions and making everyone else agree with them, so all an op-ed can do is either give someone their partisan talking points or give them someone to be angry at. And most people think the media is biased against their point of view, whatever their point of view happens to be. I have looked at the newspapers in Europe, and do you know what the media does there? They show attractive women with their tits showing in the newspapers. That helps get more men to buy the newspapers, at least. Tabloid-style things that appeal to the lowest common denominator are the way to make money. Also, you can never have too many ads. Maybe they could work some product placement into the news stories themselves. Also, people like big pictures with lots of colors a lot more than lots of big words that their brains can’t comprehend. And people want news sources with the same partisan bias that they themselves have, since they can’t be bothered to consider more than one point of view. Newspapers are failing because the product they are selling, namely good journalism, is not something that the general public is very interested in. The Fox “News” Channel, on the other hand, is doing great, because it is catering to the lowest common denominator.

    I do find this Woody Harrelson story fascinating. (This is exactly the type of celebrity human interest story of the absurd newspapers should report if they want to make money!) One would think an actor would know the difference between a movie set and the real world, or the difference between a zombie and some photographer stalking you. I for one would not find it easy to put up with paparazzi, and might be prone to beating them up and breaking their cameras, but luckily I am not a celebrity. I think he was just naturally pissed off at the paparazzi and did what any normal person would do and attacked the guy, and now he is just trying to use the whole “zombie” thing as an excuse. I would use the same excuse if I were him. It is truly a brilliant P.R. move, since it reminds people of the movie, thereby increasing ticket sales, and also helps convince prosecutors not to go after him, out of pity for his mental state. I wonder if he thought of that excuse himself or if he pays somebody else to think up excuses for him.

  5. Gabrielle said

    Oh, MAN! I wish I wouldn’t have inadvertently spent all of Saturday sleeping! That sounds like it would have been really interesting…plus, I don’t need much of a reason to visit Auntie’s 🙂

    Oh well…I hope excellent discussion was had by all

  6. James McPherson said

    Gabrielle, Auntie’s is a great place and we had a lively discussion with the panel (with good audience participation). Of course at this point in the semester, chances are you needed the sleep more than you needed to spend more time hearing other people talk. 🙂

    Bob, I hadn’t thought of the PR angle for Woody, but you’re right; it is a good one. As for European newspapers, they came up at the panel yesterday–not because of the British “Page 3 Girls,” but because in Europe most newspapers are far more opinionated than ours.

    But far more people there read two or more newspapers, trying to discern truth from that, rather than expecting a single “unbiased” local newspaper to do it for them. One panelist said that in that way European newspapers tended to be more like blogs, and I agreed to a point–but also pointed out that when you finish with what you care about in one newspaper, you go on to an opposing newspaper. With blogs, when you finish one you happen to agree with you can then go to 19 links to other idiots who think the same way.

    And of course in Europe there are other cultural differences. They tend to take more time to eat, spend more time on mass transit, and go out every day or two to get groceries instead of stocking up from supermarkets.

    Finally, one of the ironies about failing newspapers is that overall people actually aren’t tired of the long, boring stories. Demand for news has gone up; people want more of it than they ever have. It’s just that they want it for free, via the Web.

    Thanks, all.

  7. […] said the newspaper’s quality has been declining for 10 years, and after the event mentioned on his blog Pitts’ handling of “the insults–some deserved, some not–aimed at his […]

  8. e sims said

    put a camera in my face and il blow your faggot head off

  9. Gabrielle said

    James: possibly…but as an English major, I’ll always trade sleep for hearing yet another new perspective 🙂

    Oh, and I think the insatiable demand for free news would lessen if newspapers had the guts to restrict their archives to paying customers. I’m not saying I’d LIKE that – again, as an English lit major, it’s really nice to have access to free archives (which is another thought…universities paying one rate to newspapers so students would have access during their time there), but if newspapers hope to survive as a source of jobs, it might be the only way.

    Also I really think, in our fast food/visually oriented culture, weeklies with a magazine format, like The Inlander, have a much better chance of being both relevant and interesting.

    I’m a big fan of The Inlander, if you couldn’t tell 🙂

  10. James McPherson said

    Gabrielle, I’m also a fan of the Inlander–not least of which is because they keep hiring our students.

    And Mr. (or Ms.) Sims, forgive me for saying so since I have no idea who you are, but I imagine that the only photographer likely to be demanding your photo will be a county employee in charge of taking mug shots.

  11. zelda said

    Right on Bob……..!
    So what was the general consensus thinking of your panel discussion James?
    I know you liked everyone….but what did they say? What did you say.?
    Was it “on the other hand” thinking or was there some real insights?

  12. James McPherson said

    Thanks, all–you can see my post of today for a panel follow-up.

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