Is the media falling down on the job?

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The debate held Tuesday in Manchester by the Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning on whether the media is doing its job raised many questions, all of them good ones.

The proposition up for discussion was "If the health of a democracy depends upon a well-informed public, the media is failing in its role."

Naturally, we're a little bit defensive about that. Sure, we're a community daily and our role is naturally different than that of a metropolitan newspaper, or a news cable network. Our role is to cover local news; their job is covering the world with resources well beyond our means.

But we're part of "the media," too, and no one likes to hear that they're not doing a good job.

The truth is, the positions taken by both Derek Boothby and Peter Radford on Tuesday night (and reported by Derek Carson of the Bennington Banner) are both accurate.

Yes, the media as a whole has pandered to the lowest common denominator and given you shallow celebrity happenings as if they were news. Yes, it has copied and pasted social media postings by famous, wealthy and powerful people and pretended that's news.

But yes, we keep consuming that product. And yes, we spend too much time in the echo chamber of social media, where we can conveniently ignore news and opinions that don't match our worldview

Yet, in this age of Donald Trump, we're seeing a number news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post stepping up to the challenge and doing great work.

The problem is, after years of giving people what they want rather than what they need, is there enough demand for quality investigative reporting?

Here in Southern Vermont, we're betting the answer is "yes."

For decades now, the stockholder-owned corporations which own many newspapers (and their web sites) and radio stations have been hell-bent on winning the race to the bottom. For a number of reasons — some legitimate, some shareholder dividend-driven — they have cut costs by reducing the number of people who gather, write and edit the news.

The trouble is that when you reduce the amount and quality of content in the newspaper or on the website, you also reduce the reasons why people would want to read it. It's like burning down the barn to save the horses.

The result? The well-informed public our nation's future depends upon seems to be getting progressively less well-informed.

We're working very hard at turning that paradigm around.

Our newspapers — the Journal, the Bennington Banner, the Brattleboro Reformer and The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Mass. — are embarking upon their second year of local ownership, after 20-plus years in a much larger corporation. Our new owners' goal is to make our publications the best community newspapers in the country. That's a lofty goal, and the industry-wide trends of the past two decades are not easily reversed, in the marketplace or on the page.

But the commitment is real, and we're working to prove it.

There's no going back to the Good Old Days as our more mature readers knew them, when the media acted as gatekeepers of information. With so much information available at the touch of a smartphone screen, a great part of the responsibility does lie upon the consumer to make wise choices and step outside his or her ideological comfort zone when the facts don't marry the narrative.

But we're doing our very best to hold up our end of the bargain.

And we're glad that GMALL, the debaters and the Manchester Community Library, which hosted the debate, care deeply enough about our country and where it's going to put on this worthy program.


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