Okay, okay, cue the snickering comments from the legions of digital cognoscenti. "Hey Dan, there's also something called a mobile phone," I can hear some of you saying. But for someone who was raised in an era when feedback had to be typed up or written out longhand and sent through the mail, this new world of social media has been really exciting to see -- and to join.
You know the world has changed in a fundamental way when you look at many of the news stories this year and realize that they had something remarkable in common. From the streets of Cairo and the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, from the busy political calendar to the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, social media was not only sharing the news but driving it. So it's not surprising that this was also the year that this newsman, whose first "computer" was a slide rule, finally discovered Facebook.
I don't pretend to be a digital savant or even a digital apprentice. I have folks in the office that translate my typed out missives into forms suitable for on-line distribution. And when they try to explain everything to me, sometimes it reminds me of when I tried to program my old VCR. But what I do know is that there are wonderful new venues for sharing thoughts, be they serious or silly, pleasant or provocative.
I have long been concerned with a certain frivolousness creeping into news in traditional forms -- newspapers, television, and radio. On the printed page and over the airwaves, time and space are finite quantities. With so many serious problems in the world, I believe a half-hour newscast or a front-page should be devoted to vital news stories. It is the ethos I have tried to maintain with my one-hour news magazine on HDNet. If you want entertainment or escapism, there are plenty of other options on the dial (anachronism intended). Yet online, concerns about space and time evaporate in a world of terabytes and archived web pages.
When we started our Facebook page for Dan Rather Reports, I was reluctant to jump in and share personal thoughts. We told our fans what would be on next week's program or when a report was available on iTunes. But a funny thing happened that in retrospect seems obvious, slowly but surely our viewers and followers told us they wanted to know something more. They wanted a sense of the process of our reporting and I got excited about the real-time feedback.
There is no doubt that the way journalism worked when I was growing up and getting started has changed forever. I often think about how my career would be different if I had come of age today. In some ways, I think things have changed for the better -- discourse is more open, fluid, and democratic. But at the same time, real reporting often requires resources (a Cairo bureau, for example, isn't cheap). It also requires some sobriety and circumspection -- often what is really taking place can be obscured by the passions and tumult of the moment. Unfortunately, the funding for this type of journalism is shrinking. Much of our more traditional media is now run by big international conglomerates that care nothing of news as a public service.
My hope is that those who control the levers of our big media operations can be swayed by the energy of online voices. If protesters in the Arab world can topple dictators, surely we can rise up and demand more fairness and accountability from our corporate-run press. Let us show that there is an audience demanding good reporting. Let us share our thoughts, point each other to examples of quality journalism, and realize that we all now have a means to express ourselves more freely.
While I think that this online world can make a difference on big issues, I am also finding that it allows for me to engage with all of you in ways I never was able to do before in my career. As my wife will tell you, I often have a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head, a book I'm enjoying, a song I'm listening to, a movie I'd like to see. I still love following and thinking about politics. I enjoy recommending important journalism I read or see from other sources. So on Facebook and Twitter I have started to share more of what I am thinking. What I like about these forums is that if someone doesn't care about what I have to say (a sentiment I certainly understand), they don't have to. If they want to tell me they disagree, they can easily do so. And all this can exist in a way that doesn't infringe on what we are trying to accomplish journalistically on our televised reports. Yet it isn't completely separate either. We get story ideas and vital dialogue now from people in almost real time.
So I plan to keep posting and tweeting away, throwing my two cents into the maelstrom like any other on-line citizen can do. I hope this world doesn't devour a more traditional approach to investigative and enterprise reporting that I believe remains vital and in too short supply. But this isn't a zero sum game and I for one am having some fun finally signing up.