Opinion » Letter From The Editor

Wrestling With the Truth

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And in the latest news: Iconic folksinger Richie Havens has died; one of the Oregon militants has dressed in a sumo outfit and made a video challenging Chris Christie to a wrestling match; and a New Yorker has built an igloo in Brooklyn and listed it as an Airbnb.

At least, those are among the first few stories on my Facebook feed today, the links posted by my friends and acquaintances. My job, should I choose to accept it, is to discern which of these stories is true.

These are the kinds of choices we online content consumers face these days. Crap is everywhere: memes, fantastical stories, listicle slideshows, spam emails, questionnaires that purport to show who your soulmate is or what character in Downton Abbey you'd be. Oh look, here's a picture of Obama's "college ID" that says he's a foreign student. Fake. Here's a Ted Cruz "quote" where he says he's been chosen by God to be president. False. And here's a report that says Donald Trump said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a supporter. True.

When reality is as crazy as fiction, how do you determine what's actual news and what's fake? It's not easy, and it's so tempting to quickly share juicy or incriminating or funny stuff that reinforces your views, without verifying whether it's true. Making things even more difficult are the hundreds of websites that run outrageous lies under the guise of "satire." It's all clickbait, designed to get your IP address and sell advertising.

I just returned from a digital conference for altweeklies. It was held in San Francisco, a city so digitized that print newspapers are hard to find, even if you look for them. The local SF Weekly is corporate-owned, printed on low-quality paper, and with a typeface so small it's nearly unreadable. It looks like a bad Best Buy circular.

Yet, elsewhere in the country, including Memphis and other mostly mid-size cities, the independently owned weeklies are still viable, still getting picked up and read, and still have a recognizable brand in their market. These papers are mostly concerned with growing their websites as assets that complement and enhance their brands and extend their market reach.

It's no secret that getting breaking news via a print product is not the way of the future. It's a big problem for daily newspapers, but it's nothing new for weeklies. We've always come out once a week and have never had to worry about competing to deliver the hottest scoop. We've focused on the news behind the news, analysis, opinion, feature stories, entertainment, humor, and music. And we've always been relentlessly local in focus. If we break a news story, it's usually on our website.

And it turns out, according to the experts at our conference, that that's a good strategy. In-depth local coverage will become the survival path for any news organization not named The New York Times. Most of it will break digitally before appearing in print. The problem for dailies is, as it has been for years: How do you monetize the digital product at a level that pays for a decent-sized news staff?

The bottom line is that no matter what platform you use to get it, reliable, entertaining, and well-sourced local content is more important than ever. And we appreciate the readers and advertisers who help us make it happen in Memphis.

Oh, by the way, Richie Havens died in 2013. The militia sumo-wrestling video story appears to be true. And I don't care enough about the Airbnb igloo story to pursue it.

Be careful out there.

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