"Often we seem to be having the wrong conversations about the wrong issues." So said Tom Jones, who with issues-adept Carol Coletta is a partner in Smart City Consulting and in the well-read Weblog, Smart City Memphis, operated by that organization. His point was that "blogs" like his own, Internet journals which solicit dialogue with their readers on public matters, have begun to proliferate in tandem with the growth of computer use. And the goal of all these blogs is to redirect and focus the ongoing public conversation onto their version of the "right" issues.
To be sure, as Jones and fellow panelists at a weekend forum on the blog boom noted, there is still a "connectedness" gap between Memphis and other major metropolitan areas — a fact of more than usual urgency at a time when potentially negligent handling of the once-promising Memphis Networx initiative has become a political controversy. Another panelist, Steve Steffens of the LeftWingCracker blog, noted the public service performed by Flyer staff writer Chris Davis in separating facts from fantasy in the Networx matter — an investigation which has parallels in additional work by Davis on the Flyer Web site and on the Flypaper Theory, an independent blog which he founded and operates.
This mixed-media effect was alluded to by another panelist, anchor Cameron Harper of WPTY-TV, who noted his station's increasing habit of expanding coverage of a televised story on its Web site and confidently predicted, "There will come a time when people don't distinguish between watching television and being online."
Or perhaps they will draw such distinctions — to the disadvantage of "old media." Mediaverse blogger Richard Thompson, a former Commercial Appeal reporter, says he still enjoys walking through the morning dew to get his paper (even though he's already digested most of its contents online). But he and the others — and the evidence of declining readership, for that matter — suggest a direr outcome for the traditional print formula.
It isn't just journalism, however, that's having to adapt to the new electronic means at hand. So is politics. All three mayoral candidates on hand for Saturday's event — Herman Morris, Carol Chumney, and John Willingham — acknowledged, when asked by host Jonathan Lindberg of Main Street Journal, the need for their campaigns to function this year in cyberspace.
And, by welcome coincidence, this week saw on CNN the first of two scheduled YouTube debates. It featured video questions offered online to Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered apprehensively in traditional lineup fashion on a stage at the Citadel in South Carolina. The Republican hopefuls will get their shot in September. Meanwhile, we can say without fear of contradiction that the questions on CNN Monday night were more penetrating and the answers livelier and more revealing than we're used to seeing in these dog and pony shows. There was a genuine sense of spontaneity to the occasion, something the ever more scripted and consultant-heavy political process has long needed.
Of one thing we're sure: The Internet and politics are marching forward in tandem. But there is still a vital role to be filled by traditional journalism. One of the things the participants at Saturday's local event agreed on is that traditional standards of proof and objectivity will survive the marriage of old and new forms. We wish.