Do you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon? Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? How did you first learn of the Martin Luther King Jr.’s slaying?
For baby boomers, these watershed events were also media bonfires. In other words, the world gathered around radios and televisions for live broadcasts of the unfolding details. They read in-depth coverage in the morning and evening paper and full-length features in magazines. Breaking news had a way of uniting people, at least in the shared experience of discovering the information. Millions and even billions simultaneously huddled around broadcasts and read the same publications on the way to work or back home or in their dentists’ waiting room.
However, the children of boomers are all journalists. And none of them saw Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down on live TV. They receive bulletins and alerts on smartphones sometimes faster than mainstream media. I was aboard a Chicago River tour boat on Saturday, taking in the windy city’s architecture with my family. Our younger son elbowed me and showed me his smartphone screen. It said, “Neil Armstrong First Man on the Moon Dies.”
Earlier that same afternoon while walking along the Miracle Mile, my older son’s fiancée expressed her dismay with the Today Show on Friday. She lives in Chicago, so she’s used to watching NBC’s morning fare on tape delay. Unfortunately, the newscast is also prerecorded. Her iPhone vibrated to announce the Empire State Building shooting. It wasn’t until several minutes later that NBC went live to report the tragedy. Just not fast enough in today’s 24/7, always-on news cycle.
When I studied electronic journalism at Wayne State University in the late 1970’s, there were wire machines in the classrooms, fed by the United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP). Occasionally, one of my instructors would run to the machines when they chimed bulletins, flashes and alerts. All my teachers were working editors, reporters and executive producers. They knew real-life breaking news was something only a professional experienced. For a journalism student, the classroom wire service was the next best thing. I remember one day, the professor tore the wire copy off the machine seconds after it chimed. He slapped it face down on the photocopier and instantly printed 12 copies, one for each of us in the class. We were in the midst of typing up a rundown for a newscast. He briskly walked into the room with the copy and announced, “this just in” as he tossed the bulletin in front of each of us. We had to shuffle our plans and reorder the events of the day. We were learning news judgment and how to manage information. We gained insight into developing leads, story angles, following up details, identifying sources and corroborating facts.
Today, your son or daughter, neighbor, work colleague or the passenger next to you on the bus, subway or plane is a journalist, re-reporting information that arrives very hot off the wire. Billions of people today are experiencing breaking news all by themselves or via social networking. We’ve lost the collective journalistic bonfire we once gathered around to feel the warmth of mutual interest and smell the smoke of sizzling, hard news. Now, each of us will have his or her own point-of-view on historic events, developed in 140 characters or less. Whether the information has been validated or not.