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‘Ink shortage’ for coastal pens is becoming serious (part two in a series).

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Editor’s note: this post on the power of the press in saving the Mississippi River delta is dedicated to one of my journalism heroes, the late Henry “HL” Mencken. This sardonic critic of sacred institutions and bureaucracy died in Baltimore in 1956, as did both my paternal grandmother Elizabeth Fox Bahr and maternal grandfather James Henry Riefle.

by Len Bahr, PhD*

I recently argued that science, policy and the media are each critical to whatever success is ultimately achieved in saving the delta system of the Mississippi River. I also argued that both the science and media legs of the coastal ‘milking stool’ are currently outspent and overwhelmed by the policy leg. My comments are based on a somewhat unique tri-polar perspective, based on significant experience in science, policy and the media.**

I think we need to remind ourselves and the public at large that saving south Louisiana and the northern gulf coast has become the most ambitious, expensive and  – I hope – justifiable public works program in history. The reminding function is the job of the press.

Widespread “ink shortage” threatens the traditional power of the pen

Part one of this post on the roles of science, policy and the media in coastal restoration concluded with this sentence:

Effective oversight on coastal policy is the role of the Fourth Estate, the media, which is currently under extreme duress, threatened by budget cuts, loss of reporters and the evolving and uncertain role and effectiveness of the ‘new media.’

Informing the public on coastal issues is clearly not a job for scientists; and don’t count on politicos, either. Elected officials and their staff members are very unlikely to disclose to constituents what little they may understand about the huge uncertainties and mounting odds against coastal success.

That leaves the media. Reporting candid and objective information on the state of the coast is fundamentally the job of the press – both the old and now the new media. The Fourth Estate should be watch-dogging the policy leg of the coastal milking stool, and figuratively peeing on it when that’s appropriate. Unfortunately, the watchdog is rapidly losing its pissing power, its bark and its bite.

I’m concerned about the coastal effect of the rapidly declining ability of reporters and editors everywhere to do a job on which (knowingly or unknowingly) the public is absolutely dependent. The major news outlets are making draconian cuts in their hard news divisions and engaging in checkbook journalism. ABC News just announced a 25% cut in its reporting staff.

I typically pull up the New York Times’ web site several times a week and the last time a survey popped up on my screen asking about my willingness to pay for the important information that I’ve been getting free of charge, but for which ‘The Old Gray Lady’ will begin charging next year. I responded that I’d probably be willing to spend $5/month to continue to access probably the best daily reporting on science and politics in the world.

For sixty bucks a year that would be a bargain – unless I could get similar (lower quality) information somewhere else for free. Therein lies the problem.

The internet is draining readers, viewers and advertising revenues from traditional news outlets. Hard news reporting is quite expensive and it’s being cut all over the country. The shrinking size of Sunday editions of The Advocate and The Times-Picayune are obvious and ominous. Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) faces a serious shortfall from state budget cuts that could shut down this vital source of free (non-cable) information for two or three days a week.

As a graduate of McDonogh School in Baltimore and in July 2010 a 37-year resident of south Louisiana I’m struck by many political and cultural connections between B’Almer, or “Charm City” and N’Awlins, “The Big Easy.” I can attest to the sad decline of The Baltimore Sun, once one of the truly distinguished newspapers in the world and the employer of HL Mencken. The Sun published its first issue in May 1837 and while writing this post I was astonished to discover that The Picayune (later The Times-Picayune) began publication in New Orleans that very same year!

"HL" Mencken (1880-1956)

"HL" Mencken (1880-1956) photo from Wikipedia

I’m now watching the fifth and final season of The Wire on DVD. This show, all filmed in Baltimore but with underlying connections to New Orleans,*** is the best TV drama that I’ve ever seen. Much of the final season candidly depicts dramatic cutbacks on staff and hard news reporting at The Sun. Based on conversations with my daughter Emilie and other journalists who’ve seen it, the show accurately depicts the crisis in the detailed coverage of hard news all over the country.

One solution for impending critical reporting gaps is The New York Times’ decision to charge for web access. Would the public in Louisiana agree to pay for in-depth reporting, including the investigative reporting necessary to keep the policy leg of the coastal milking stool honest? I have strong doubts.

New Media

LaCoastPost has created an information niche that did not exist before October 15, 2008, a niche that could become more and more important as traditional outlets face budget cutbacks. On the other hand this blog could not exist without the reporting power of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, The Advocate, The Daily Comet, The Advertiser and many other hard news outlets with experienced and talented staff.

As editor of LaCoastPost I have the latitude to offer inside commentary on coastal news, complementary to and not competitive with reporting by the traditional media. Based on experience and judgment I can read between the lines of news articles. I can also call attention to anonymous tips, unverified and fact-checked, which are generally off limits to straight, just the facts, Ma’am, reporting.

We’re obviously in the midst of an explosion of digital information and 24 hour news cycles, while the public seems to grow less informed (and more misinformed) about issues of vital importance. I sense an ironic inverse relationship between technology and public knowledge. It seems that the more dependent we become on gadgets the more ignorant we become of science.

The following quote is from a 2/23 broadcast of NPR’s Talk of the Nation with host Neal Conan.

A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion showed that a vast majority of Americans, nearly 80%, believe in miracles…

The same survey concluded that most Americans also believe in heaven and hell and angels and demons, which strongly contrasts with our European counterparts. Such widespread belief in miracles conforms with a sobering story on NPR’s All Things Considered on 2/23/10, on why anthropogenic climate change is disbelieved by so many.

As a scientist who believes in an ordered universe, my evidence for and definition of a miracle would have an extremely high bar, e.g., an exception to the law of gravity or the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Meanwhile, unless action is taken soon the prospect of saving south Louisiana will indeed reach the miraculous category!

I’m currently promoting the idea of staging a series of panel discussions among wise representatives of both the old and the new environmental media to address the parallel crises in the press and the coast.

*Founding editor (leonardbahr@gmail.com)

**I spent ten years as a coastal scientist at LSU; eighteen years in the governor’s office as a coastal policy advisor; and the past seventeen months as a budding journalist/columnist in the so-called new media.

***The Wire was the brainchild of David Simon, a former reporter on The Baltimore Sun, who is currently overseeing Treme, his latest HBO project to air on April 11. It’s all filmed in New Orleans and it features John Goodman, as well as New Orleans native Wendell Pierce and other actors from The Wire. Here’s the link from nola.com to a Treme fund raiser video filmed in New Orleans on March 27, 2010.

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  1. Well

    One of the big failures of the internet transition that has been engulfing the news is that they want to use the same standards with the new media that worked with the old. It’s not a charge for access period discussion. It’s a level of access discussion – old news is just that old – it’s only use is using the long tail of selling ads. Access to news on the cutting edge – now that’s a commodity. It’t a pity that papers don’t get this.

    They stand on the top of giant mountains of fans that will flock to there banners if only they would give their fans the respect and the access they deserve (for a price of course).

  2. I think the one thing that changed things the most was the quiet repeal of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration. Would the public’s understanding of the status of the scientific debate on climate change, for instance, be a little bit different if that doctrine were still in place? I think the answer to that is a resounding: Yes. Imagine for a moment where we would be on all these difficult and complicated issues, if FOX News actually was fair and balanced? Yes, the internet has had an impact but I think that will change when kick back from the information overload truly sets in. These are old patterns of dispersed innovation followed by consolidation. We will see it again with the internet.

  3. HeidiHoe says:

    I believe in miracles……..

    Somehow a line of trees will stop a 20 foot high storm surge…….

    This would be right up there with the Red Sea parting……

    Like the Little Engine once panted, I think I can….

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