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Is PBS Still Necessary?

February 19, 2008

That's the question asked by Charles McGrath in the Arts & Leisure section of Sunday's New York Times ("Is PBS Still Necessary?", Feb. 17, 2008). I read the article on Sunday morning and remember thinking, "That's going to upset some people." But Sunday was my birthday, and I quickly forgot about it.

So I was surprised earlier this evening to hear Jim Lehrer, at the end of The NewsHour broadcast, mention the lively conversation about PBS unfolding in the comments section attached to McGrath's article at the Times Web site. I know. PBS "got" the Web years ago and has done an admirable job of integrating its on- and offline content offerings. But this was Lehrer, the grand old man (sorry, Jim!) of public television news, urging viewers, in his understated way, to check out the user-generated content on the Web site of a rival news outlet. How Web 2.0 of him!

Anyway, as of an hour ago there were more than eight hundred comments in the thread and the pro-PBS side was winning by a landslide. Obviously, McGrath (intentionally, I suspect) hit a nerve. But what are the larger lessons here? What, if anything, does the overwhelming support for PBS expressed by Times readers say about the viability of traditional media in a Web 2.0 world? What's the secret to getting the average Jane or Joe to engage with Web-based content? And how is the role of traditional journalistic gatekeepers like the Times and PBS changing in this brave new media world?

-- Mitch Nauffts


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I think, as far as "mainstream news" is concerned, traditional journalists still tend to guard the same gates, but there are now more gates covering the various new holes cut into the walls. There is also a broadening definition of news, which makes Web 2.0 and the blogosphere still part of the story. Real journalists never try to become the story. Most consumers of news are seeking outlets they can consistently trust. Call me crazy, but I have less confidence in what a cleverly named commentator says about a story than I have in a professional journalist whose job is to seek out and present the news.

"Call me crazy, but I have less confidence in what a cleverly named commentator says about a story than I have in a professional journalist whose job is to seek out and present the news."

I have to disagree. It all depends on what "cleverly named commentators" you read (much like you wouldn't go to the World Weekly News for your information)but I prefer the instant accountability of some news and commentary blogs to the "maybe we'll put a correction on page E-47 in small type if enough people send an e-mail to the Ombudsman before enough time has passed to forget about it" style practiced by all too many traditional journalism outfits.

Your point about corrections is a fair one. One of the many things I enjoy about news stories on the Web is that corrections can be (and in reputable publications are) appended to a story.

[Hey, what's wrong with the Weekly World News?! ;-)]

A head's up for PhilanTopic readers: Someone from the NewsHour crew will lead a discussion during tonight's broadcast about the thunderous online response to Charles McGrath's article in the Times. Should be interesting...

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    — Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

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