July 27, 2010
Henry Luce was history by the time I got to journalism school in the 1970s. Though rather recently dead, he was already classed with the dinosaurs — and his great creation, Time magazine, was routinely ridiculed for its right-wing slant and weird writing style.
Today’s media environment has been unkind to Time and other giants of the mainstream, but perhaps it newly validates – even elevates — the brilliance of Luce’s original vision. Turns out the man was a news blogger, about 90 years ahead of his time.
That insight I owe to Bill Keller’s terrific review of a new Luce biography by Alan Brinkley. Taking the book as a starting point, Keller reaches for a larger subject, which most may agree is the key question about journalism’s future: Will readers insist (or at least accept) that it’s their job to net the content they want from the ceaseless rivers of online news, or will they prefer to enlist (and pay) professionals to do it for them?
This is essentially the same question that Luce addressed in 1923 – amidst a vastly smaller information flow – and on his answer was built the Time Inc. empire. Conceived as “a weekly digest of news and analysis culled from other publications,” Keller writes, Time “promised to scour close to 90 periodicals and amalgamate news from every sphere of life. Its declared mission was to serve ‘the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table-conversation.’ ” And, in the process, to save them a lot of time.
I’m involved now with an experiment of similar purpose, if not scale. Midwest Energy News is a noncommercial, online newsmagazine published from St. Paul that offers a daily guide to journalism on energy issues of special interest to an eight-state region. We are funded to serve a network of nonprofit advocacy groups but guided by journalistic principle; network members accept our notion that securing a wider audience for energy coverage – both the “good” news and the “bad” from their own organizational viewpoints, which frequently conflict – will ultimately contribute to progressive new energy systems.
We’ve been at it for a few months now, and early responses support our notion that even the most active, skilled, up-to-the-minute consumers of online news find value in our selections. Every day we find stories they’ve missed; we make connections between stories arising in distant places; occasionally we produce stories of our own, and we aim to do more of that.
Unlike Luce, we’re not out to make a Fortune (sorry) nor to drive a personal political agenda. Like Luce, we think there is value and maybe even virtue in making the hard work of staying informed a little easier for a serious audience awash in too much news. And like all journalists of every age, we hope that what we gather makes a positive difference in our time.
Ron Meador, director of the Media Center at Fresh Energy in St. Paul, worked for daily newspapers for more than 30 years – many of them at the Star Tribune, where he was a reporter, assistant managing editor and editorial writer.