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Thursday, July 07, 2005 | If there is going to be not only a trend, but a distinct business decision to “open up” newspapers to community participation via the Internet, then I think the community participators need at least a flash course in Journalism 101.

I say this as a man who has been in the journalism profession since 1969, both as a newspaperman and a college instructor. When you do this work long enough, you realize that you may be original, and get great stories, and inform and influence the citizenry, but what you really are, at the end of the day, is a defender of principles.

These are the principles that I want known to citizens in Lawrence, Kan., and Greensboro, N.C., two places where newspapers are introducing what they call “participatory journalism,” or “citizen journalism,” and also here in San Diego, at Voice of San Diego, whose very name mandates such participation.

It scares me to read, in The New York Times, that such newspapers mean to become “a virtual town square, where citizens have a say in the news and where every reader is a reporter,” without some assurance that those readers are at least familiar with journalism principles that are older than the Constitution and are the bedrock of the First Amendment.

The Founding Fathers knew that. Concerning the press, the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.” Because “abridge” means reduce or diminish, it means the authors understood that freedom of the press already existed in this country and was not created, but simply protected, by the First Amendment.

This nation’s principles don’t come any more basic than that and I, for one, don’t hold with hordes of yahoos tromping all over this hallowed space without some understanding of that.

Journalists go to school to learn their trade, and the first thing they learn are the tools, rules and definitions that we use to defend journalism principles. Most people know about the famous Five W’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why.

The actual tools and realities used every day in this business are not known, however, to the general public, because they aren’t taught anywhere but journalism school. These are the tools that I insist on exposing to the coming generation of “hands-on readers,” as The Times calls them, but there is another even more compelling reason that they become generally known. These same tools are at the heart of every sitcom, every commercial, every movie, every talk show, every media product offered in a world that has become flooded with media products.

People blame the media for the flood, and for such dubious results of this flood, such as reality television, the Bush administration’s scripted town halls, and Paris Hilton, without the slightest idea of what is going on.

Media producers know exactly what is going on and use journalism’s basic tools in ways that become more sophisticated all the time. Consumers need to know those tools, too, and understand how they work, because if they do, then the media will know that the consumers know what is going on, and that will change the media-consumer relationship.

There is a blinding irony at work here. The media did, in fact, create a couple of the tools it uses. The rest were created by people. Almost all of the tools, definitions and rules of journalism were created by people thousands of years before the media came into existence. The media only took those ancient tools and turned them into a business.

There are 10 tools: Conflict, Progress, Disaster, Consequence, Prominence, Proximity, Timeliness, Human Interest, Novelty and Sex & Sensationalism. I call them the Toolbox.

There are three media realities in the Toolbox: Balance, Professionalism and Competition. There are also three public realities: Information, Demographics and Curiosity.

And there are two laws of media: 1) The media is a business; 2) The media is an exercise in the power of small numbers.

More about this next week.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com.

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