Dispatch from Columbus: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

FUTURE THINKING

ColumbusDispatch_Columbus_Ohio

A personal vignette about old media and the next generation.

Last night Eldest Child was squired back to the campus of The Ohio State University for the beginning of her winter quarter and a trip to the bustling (Barnes & Noble) college bookstore. Girls in Uggs and boys in ballcaps – some of the best and brightest of the world’s first wired generation – glided agilely among coffeehouse scents and the bounty of twenty-first-century distractions.

Everybody in the store was in motion, save for one. Stationed strategically between the registers and the store’s exit was a lone, still sentinel – a middle-aged man on a stool, behind a small table festooned with two simple, Gothic-lettered words: “Columbus Dispatch.”

Would you like a discounted subscription to the paper?, the gentleman asked as my daughter slipped towards the store exit.

She smiled quickly and firmly, but with not a whit of deliberation between request and response.

No thanks, she said.

Back out on the street, Eldest Child, simpatico to my chosen profession, wanted to know why the newspaper just couldn’t have offered her something online – either the come-on, or the product itself.

Good question. If newspapers don’t gin up the right answers, and soon, a recent cartoon from Ted Rall will be as prophetic as it is funny. For in the lobby of my daughter’s Honors College dormitory there are not discounted newspapers but FREE newspapers, all for the betterment (and hoped-for addiction) of tomorrow’s leaders, colorfully displayed in an all-you-can-read-for-nothing banquet of Columbus Dispatches, Cleveland Plain Dealers, New York Timeses, and USA Todays – and all about as untouched as Xbox 360 controllers in a senior citizens center.

Why must this be so? Are the Millennials just not as interested as the Baby Boomers or Gen Xers have been in news, in statistical information, in colorful life stories?

Hardly! The problem, I believe, is that the Internet generation just isn’t that wedded to paper. And as journalists, we shouldn’t be either. Which isn’t to say our content won’t need to evolve to suit the online medium. It will. And how we present our content online will be every bit as important as what content we choose to present. But we must resist the urge to equate the next generation’s rejection of the medium with a wholesale rejection of content itself.

I agree with an article written for the World Association of Newspapers that papers (and for that matter, print magazines) must become not just publications anymore but “valued members of larger networks that enable their communities to gather, share, and make sense of the news they need.” In fact, I recently talked at a meeting of the American Society of Business Publication Editors about the long history of business media as “community” – that it’s more about the brand, the community, and the conversation than it is about the medium.

How will we conjure this new vision of mediated community? We need to put on our collective virtual reality helmet and – as Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab describes it – “imagine what media consumption will look like in one, five, 10 years.”

Which sounds like way more fun than pouting like rejected suitors, sitting on the fringes of the media ball and offering our phone number to anyone who happens by.

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