Local advertising legend John Malmo discoursed to members of the Memphis Rotary Club this week on the nature of the daily newspaper (both generically and in the form of its local variant, The Commercial Appeal). And it was hard to tell whether he was preaching a eulogy for
a fallen form or delivering an exhortation for the daily (and its several cousins in the media at large) to rise and prosper and sin no more.
Which is to say that, like any talented storyteller, Malmo delivered a narrative that generated a fair amount of suspense and one that could lead to any of several different conclusions.
Though Malmo, like Commercial Appeal managing editor Otis Sanford, who introduced him, cited the dreary statistics familiar these days to all journalists (the folding of famous newspapers, fresh declarations of bankruptcy, and the like), Malmo made the case that only newspapers could deliver the "accountability and conscience" that any society requires and that only they could give to public matters the necessary scope and detail.
The problem, as Malmo sees it, is not that readers have a decreased attention span, it is that they are reading fewer newspapers for smaller periods of time at a sitting because newspapers today are offering less and less news as such in ever more reduced forms.
"There is a difference between information and news," he said, and a continuing need for a journalism of "verification" as against one of "assertion."
Whether or not Malmo's diagnosis of the problem is correct, it is both flattering and encouraging that he took the time and trouble to offer a prescription. And we'll take it to heart.
Cook and Robbins
Placed together like that, the last names of Fred Cook and Craig Robbins suggest either a law firm or an ice cream shop. Appropriately so, since these two distinguished late broadcasters both laid down the law to their listeners (in the sense of doling things out straight) and offered them one treat after another during their time of service in Memphis.
Cook, who left us this week at the age of 83, was the dean of Mid-South broadcasters at the time of his death — having been both a pioneer anchor for the old WREC television franchise (later to be WREG) and a longtime radio host for both news and music and, along with John Powell, a bit of comedy, too, on WREC radio. Robbins, who was a full quarter-century younger and was the reliable and affable morning news voice on the same radio station (he also had worked at WMC earlier) had earned an equivalent respect long before his own unexpected death, weeks ago.
Robbins was honored by the Shelby County Commission at its regular meeting this week, and Cook, too, is sure to receive that honor from the public sphere.
Just as new forms of journalism will come along, so will new voices to perform the kinds of services for a mass audience as did Cook and Robbins. But few, if any, as well.