Monthly Archives: August 2007

Hospice Management for Old Media?

A few years ago, a community development specialist and true-blue Extension professional bluntly stated that the only viable strategy for many declining rural communities was a Hospice approach.

About all that could be done for residents in these terminal communities, he believed, was to make the downward spiral as painless as possible.

 

I was shocked.  Then, after thinking about it, the rationalist in me prevailed. Why invest limited public resources in a community that has no hope for long-term survival?

 

Likewise, the thought occurred to me more than once that old media — and by that, I mean conventional mass media — should be managed much the same way.  Futurist Alvin Toffler, author of the utterly prophetic book, the Third Wave, written more than a generation ago, saw things pretty much the same way.  He foresaw the decline of conventional mass media.  He even predicted that these older mass media — newspapers, radio and television — eventually would be superseded by what he aptly termed “demassified media.”  (And what is the Web other than a form of radically demassified media?)

 

Toffler even predicted that all media, including what now passes as print and broadcast media, eventually would emanate from one device he described as a VDT (video display terminal).  Granted, he didn’t get it completely right — yet, at least — though he was right about one thing:  from Sirius Satellite Radio and Direct Broadcast Satellite to news and blog filtering, we’re exposed to an infinite variety of media driven entirely by individual choice.  Back to that word again — demassification.

 

And that brings me back to my original point: What should we, as Extension professionals, do about conventional media?

 

Only a short time ago, my advice would have been to adopt a Hospice approach — to continue serving old media users as effectively as possible while devoting an ever greater number of our resources to new media. 

Then the thought occurred to me: There no longer is such a thing has mass media.  With the advent of the Web, everything, including conventional media, has become demassified. 

People no longer are married to newspapers, radio and television stations, or even Web sites.   They are interested only in content that suits them. In the case of the Web, for example, they are finding this content via search engines.

 

So, instead of a Hospice approach, my first advice would be simply to divest oneself of any residue of massified thinking.  Newspaper, radio and television now are only small parts of a considerably larger picture — valuable, yes, but only elements of a much larger mosaic. Likewise, there is no such thing as an Extension audience but rather an infinite variety of micro-audiences that are still amenable to Extension knowledge, provided it’s disseminated in the right way.

Evolve or Perish: The Cooperative Extension Imperative

An article that ran recently in the Christian Science Monitor serves as an excellent post script to yesterday’s musings.

 

Even the nation’s leading national newspapers, however reluctantly, have reached the same conclusion that many of us already share, namely that there is an evolutionary imperative associated with the Web that means exactly that — we either evolve or perish.  

Newspapers either will adapt to the web by featuring client-driven content or they will go increasingly unread. And if they are left unread, well, you get the picture – eventual extinction.  Two of the biggest players in the newspaper business, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have reached that painful conclusion.  And as they are learning, part of this will involve removing their pay-to-read firewalls and offering entirely free content.

 

Yes, there are risks associated with this transition, potentially fatal risks.  If everything the newspaper posts online is free, why should anyone bother to subscribe?  And if people aren’t subscribing, what will become of advertisers, the newspaper’s traditional bread and butter?

 

Pertinent questions, to say the least.  But the fact remains that newspapers are between the proverbial rock and hard place. There are the even more potentially calamitous risks associated with maintaining the status quo.  The simple fact of life is that the evolutionary imperative of the Web simply can no longer be ignored.  Client-driven content and the Web essentially are synonymous, and anyone who can’t see that had better head for the nearest tar pit or start growing feathers.  Back to that underlying theme again: evolve or perish.  

There is no turning back.

Fortunately, many online papers have chosen to grow feathers.  They have come to terms with the fact that in this client-driven, cut-and-paste world, pay-only content doesn’t stay that way for very long. 

 

“They can’t ignore the Web,” writes the Monitor’s Dante Chinni.  “They understand they have to find a way to move online.  But they aren’t exactly happy about it and they are unsure how the economics are going to play out.”

 

Like it or not, the brave new world awaits. And one of the biggest immediate challenges for newspapers will be feeling their way through this new world.  How will news organizations that evolved in a print-oriented, pay-only world work in a totally free-content environment? For that matter, how will it learn to adjust in a socially networked world — the growing preference of a rising generation of news aficionados?

 

Good questions.  Speaking as a 46-year-old former newspaper junkie, I will say that old-line newspapers have one thing going for them — a history.  Despite some egregious mistakes within the last few years, newspapers do have a long history of covering and reporting the news reasonably accurately.  There is still some luster to names such as the Times and Wall Street Journal, even if some Jurassic DNA has crept into their genome within the last few years — luster that can serve them well in the new media.  And what is badly needed in this tempestuous sea of blogging, twittering and flickring is ballast — or, to put it another way, adding some focus, balance and context to this welter of Web-based information.  Online newspapers have the potential of providing some of this ballast. 

And there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.  We have a long history, a virtually century-old history. And, yes, there is still some luster associated with our name and our mission, though we do have some cob webs to clear.  The good news is that if we manage to clear them, we have the potential of providing our audiences with similar type of ballast provided by old news organizatons — potentially, at least.

 

Perhaps the most important question is how –  how will Cooperative Extension, an organization nurtured within an early 20th century social, cultural and technological context, strive to remain relevant in the client-driven and increasingly socially networked world of the 21st century?

 

What is our game plan?  That remains to be seen.

      

Boll Weevil Eradication: A Lesson for the 21st Century

Comedian Bill Cosby once said that the U.S. Civil Rights movement was as much an act of intellect as it was of raw courage and sheer physical will.

 

I was thinking about this several days ago writing about a newly published history of boll weevil eradication in Alabama by Dr. Ron Smith, a retired Extension entomologist and Auburn University emeritus professor of entomology.

Anyone who doubts the indispensable role Cooperative Extension played in eradicating the weevil should take the time to read it.  This voracious pest represented not only the greatest single challenge to Cooperative Extension but also played a critical role in our movement’s formation.   And, much like the U.S. Civil Rights movement, eradication was every bit as much an act of intellect as it was of raw courage and will. Interestingly, it also involved the efforts of black and white scientists and agents, a foreshadowing of the changes that would follow civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

Equally significant, it affirmed the Cooperative Extension model like no other single event in our almost century-old history, demonstrating how scientific research could be brought to bear on a problem and then disseminated to the people who had critical need of it. Yes, it took roughly 70 years for this effort to play out fully, but the South is a better place because of it.  And it was not only the eradication of the pest itself that brought long-term benefits   Final victory over the weevil was preceded by agricultural diversification, the widespread adoption of entomological science in Southern agriculture, and spillover effects into other scientific disciplines and technologies.

I believe there is a lesson for Extension professionals in the 21st century.  Our early 20th century Extension predecessors lived in an era when Americans still maintained an enduring respect for progress — the role science and technology could play in making their lives better.

On the other hand, we live in an era when faith in science has been eroded by many of the technological advances that have followed in its wake.  Immense advances in communications technology, for example, have led to an astonishing diversification of media through which all types of messages, including scientific and technical knowledge, are communicated.  One immediate effect has been an informational overload whereby valid scientific and technical knowledge is crowded out by junk science — an effect that, along with other factors, has bred a loss of faith in science.  One unfortunate consequence is that science and technology are often viewed as root causes of, rather than solutions to, many of our society’s most pressing problems.

Our role, as Extension professionals, is to constitute a vanguard of sorts — to restore Americans’ flagging faith in scientific progress.  But we operate on entirely different terrain compared to our predecessors a century ago.  Unlike our early 20th century forebears, we constitute only one voice among many, many others. But, much like our early 20th century forebears, gaining our footing and learning how to project this voice in the most effective way possible, will require a combination of intellect, courage and sheer willpower.

The challenge awaits us.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Working with nutritionists such as Robert Keith on the subject of child nutrition for the past couple of decades, I’m still frequently reminded of what a highly complex subject this is.

 

Numerous studies underscore the fact that children have to be reached early in life.  Early success can produce a rich harvest — the reason why effectively instilling children with adequate nutrition skills by age 3 could be accurately described as the gift that keeps on giving.  Children who develop these skills have a much better chance of avoiding many of the chronic diseases now so frightfully common in the western world and, to and increasing degree, throughout the world — obesity, followed by type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and certain obesity-related types of cancer.

 

On the other hand, abject failure or simple negligence can result in a lifetime, however brief, of chronic suffering associated with these obesity-related diseases.

 

A study of roughly 400 fourth- and fifth-grade schoolchildren in Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt region revealed just what a heavy price many impoverished young people already are paying because of this lack of nutrition knowledge. An estimated third of the children in the study are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. 

Adult-onset, also known as type II, diabetes already is showing up in children as young as age 2.

 

Predictably, much of the problem stems from disengaged parents and inadequate recreational facilities.

 

Government, schools, the health sector and, yes, corporate America have roles to play in reducing these alarming rates of obesity.  But the primary burden will remain on the parent, particularly while children are under age 3.

 

Much of this involves showing how eating can be fun. Persistence is important, too. Parents shouldn’t give up the first time their children turn their noses away from the first plate of spinach or broccoli.   Over time, if they see their parents eating healthy foods and, equally important, deriving enjoyment from them, they will, too.