Scandal and Trust

The phone hacking and police bribery scandal lapping at the ankles of Rupert Murdoch has no local consequences and we should each take a moment to be glad about that. We can instead spend the weekend at Bite of Eugene, strolling through Alton Baker Park, barely thinking about Alton Baker’s other legacy.

How do you learn about a story when most of the storytellers are implicated or invested in how the story is told? It’s a modern conundrum that befits the Information Age — an Age whose monikor was popularized by those whose business is Information.

For the record, I believe the Information Age ended in 1979 and we have since entered the Too-Much-Information Age, but you never were told until Google came on the scene, promising to sort and search the flood of information that threatens to capsize you every day.

Media companies over the past few decades have consolidated at a torrid pace, combatting this increased competition with new efficiencies. When offers came, the Baker family refused to sell this newspaper. Murdoch and others built media empires by acquisitions. But what did they really acquire?

I taught Media Management and Economics at the University of Oregon and the first question I asked students was beguiling in its simplicity. A newspaper (or a television station or a radio station or a commercial website) is a business, and business is an organized collection of buy-and-sell transactions, so what do media companies sell? What is their product?

These media companies cannot hope to sell the actual information, since that’s available elsewhere — often without cost to the consumer, sometimes on their own website. Their product is not what you hold in your hands, since subscription revenue barely pays for the ink and the paper, but none of the talent or equipment required, to make a newspaper. For television, radio and free publications, the revenue received directly from viewers/listeners/readers is nothing at all.

After the appropriate pause for head-scratching, I would pose a simpler question. Buying and selling requires money, so who gives money to media companies? As Deep Throat advised reporters unraveling a different national scandal, “Follow the money.”

The simple answer is advertisers. OK, and what are advertisers buying? They are paying to have their messages placed in front of you. So what are media companies selling? They’re selling an audience. They’re selling you, your attention, your trust.

Ah, trust! It’s not enough for a newspaper to give you information, whether it’s how the city council voted, or what the weather will be like this weekend, or who is having a sale on sneakers. If you don’t believe the information is true, it’s not likely to shape your sneaker-buying plans or anything else.

By the way, government also requires the trust of the people to remain viable. Our Declaration of Independence called it “the consent of the governed” and lawmakers tinker with that trust at their peril.

Trust is more durable than a pair of sneakers. But once trust is broken, it’s the sneaker that’s more easily repaired. Murdoch wishes he had a problem that changing footwear could solve. He doesn’t.

Murdoch requires the trust of his readers. With scoundrels on his payroll, he’s in what they call in Britain “a sticky wicket” — it’s as if Tylenol had poisoned its own product.

The trust of an audience can earn a media company plenty of money from advertisers, but something else is garnered and shaped in the process. It has many names: civic pride, public opinion, political influence, collective imagination, community resolve.

Alton Baker never owned the land where our park now keeps his name. As editor and publisher of The Register-Guard, he spearheaded the campaign to preserve that land for you and your children to enjoy. His influence was recognized as the seminal contribution of the campaign.

When that ability to shape a place is sold to an out-of-town investor, community pride suffers in ways than cannot be calculated. We’re lucky to have retained local control over so much of our media landscape.

Go to the park this weekend. Enjoy the bites. But also enjoy that we’ve not been bitten. Thank Alton Baker for both.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. He published the Comic News, a free weekly newspaper in Eugene from 1995-2005.