The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 2, 2014

A future with Heisenberg

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— Last week, I started counting the number of times the term “meth” or “meth lab” appeared on the front of The Press-Enterprise, published out of Bloomsburg. It got to 10 or 12 before I did not know whether to include stories about overdosing on heroin.

Somebody at the Press-Enterprise could have been counting the number of times homicide or murder was appearing in our page one, as we followed the saga of newlyweds from North Carolina who arrived here last fall and were charged in the gruesome murder of a Valley resident whose body was deposited in Sunbury.

Underneath those headlines, at times, were some fairly ordinary occurrences. One Bloomsburg story, for example, reported that only seven meth labs had been uncovered in Berwick last year, down from the previous annual count. Progress.

Another was about how young people were acting to combat the impression of their hometown becoming known as “Methwick.”

As regular readers know, a chunk of our stories about the accused Barbour honeymooners were devoted to security at the Northumberland County Prison, where officials could not figure out how to both observe rights preserved in the constitution and keep their high-profile prisoner from blabbing to the press.

There is no precise calculation of the relationship between what is reported and what then becomes reportable. The media both covers the news and make the news. At times, they cover the news they have made and pretend they are just reporting organic developments.

You watch this happen regularly in what has been called the “echo chamber” of cable television, where Fox News focuses on fringes of the right and MSNBC gets overheated about minor matters on the left.

Suddenly, people are discussing the War on Christmas or the War on Women, two historical improbabilities that occur mainly inside teleprompters.

Cable talkers are designed for this, count on it for ratings and are untroubled by it. We are not. We are designed mainly to validate the ordinariness, not the extremes of our customers’ lives.

How can that be?  News is the unusual, the unexpected, the surprising. News is not about all the planes that landed safely.

True. Community newspapers have their share of house fires, auto accidents and convictions for unconventional behavior. But that is not how or why they continue.

Community newspapers spotlight achievements of their readers, the passages and celebrations of lives lived well, from birth to school days, to sports and special talents, then on to educational or career success, marriage, anniversaries, community service and, finally, the departure from this world.

You think all those column inches of honor rolls, deed transfers, police blotter and sports statistics were published to inflame passions? You believe that reporters gravitate naturally toward topics like property tax equalization or waste water management? Not so.

Digital media is changing our relationship — yours and mine. You have invited us into your homes for years partly because we actually respect, appreciate and admire your ordinariness. We are in your tribe, of your clan, sharing your place. Your success is our success.

Second only to mom, dad and grandparents — and maybe a teacher or coach — there are few who cheer louder than your newspaper when a local girl or boy makes good.

Cyber, digital, virtual means life is measurable, bankable, fluid, global and more or less controllable — we are not sure which, based on the prying mainframes of government versus the smart-phone protesters of Kiev, Cairo and Damascus.

Digital publishing tracks readership and measures eyeballs by the nanosecond. It converts home delivery into 24/7 street sales.

Suddenly, everybody is in the hunt for those few souls abducted and probed by aliens who reside mainly in checkout counters of supermarkets or within Area 51.

Eyeballs, over here, we have meth labs! No, look here — natural born killers! Christmas needs protectors! Moms under attack!

Media, now more than message, has tools for defining or creating a future. They have not been designed for that task. They are taking us from our homes and communities into the streets of a future that may be — like the headlines that fund it — breaking bad.

“New normal” emerges every day, which means, so far, it hasn’t lived up to its name. It behaves more like turbulence.

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.