Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Powering Down, Downsizing & Drilling Down

Buildings use more energy than any other aspect of modern human life. The energy used to keep the lights, heat and air conditioning on — both at home and work — is responsible for about 40 percent of carbon emissions generated in the U.S.

Two very different trends have arisen to radically revise this energy equation. One is pursuing new and improved building technologies, and weaving these into integrated systems that achieve dramatic energy savings — 80 percent or more in new buildings and at least 60 percent for remodeled or retrofitted buildings, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This week Northern California’s own Lawrence Lab explains its new U.S. Department of Energy green technology simulation center, where as soon as 2013 architects and builders can field-test new and combined energy-saving construction approaches and technologies.

The other response to our excessive energy and materials consumption is to “go small,” almost shocking to see after recent decades of notable excess. Very, very small, in some cases — as in well-designed homes or apartments downsized to a footprint of 100 square feet or so. Living on a scale closer to how people have lived throughout history offers a number of benefits beyond energy conservation. Next time, when we look at trends in living small, we’ll consider some of these.

Starting at the roofline is not how we planned to build Up the Road. It’s still a strange experience. Yet in these challenging times it’s good to be building at all.

At the moment we’re busy framing the overall structure, as we get ready to dig in and construct the foundation. It’s not the way we’d hoped to go. The standard ground-up approach would have been much easier. So have patience as we swing those metaphorical hammers and build bass-ackwards.

Even built backwards, by early next year it should nonetheless be clear what we’re building and just how beneficial it will be for Northern California — not to mention for you and all your friends. Fun, even. We think you’ll be at least a little amazed when we really get this show up the road.

At the apex of the roof is good journalism and great writing. That’s what we’re shooting for anyway. The need for new and independent sources of information has never been greater, given the continuing decline of U.S. media. How damaging consumerism can be when applied to information seems more apparent each day. Cooking up and feeding people only news that tastes like one’s existing political ideologies — is that any way to run a democracy?

And yet here we are.

Much has been lost in the immense shake-up of news media that’s been occurring since major news companies started to be viewed — and purchased — primarily as profit centers for investors. Good reporting, challenging cell phone-to-ear and boots-on-the-ground work, actually costs money. People who do it need to be paid. So reporting is the first thing to go when the bean counters start running the show, quickly replaced by endless infotainment and still more gasbags spraying the airways with inflammatory and often irresponsible statements of opinion. Talk is cheap, after all. And quite profitable — which is the new goal of most major media owners, certainly not generating credible information and thoughtful conversation as an investment in the public good.

Up the Road exists to challenge this scary new paradigm, albeit on a modest scale, as part of our mission as an educational nonprofit.

New technologies have challenged old media business models too, but they also make it possible for plucky start-ups like Up the Road to get into the game.

Right now we are building a complex and in-depth website that will take our educational program “up the road” and throughout Northern California, a daunting task but one well worth tackling.

Starting this fall we will be offering educational field trips and tours, and soon thereafter — we think — a public radio show. Covering three far-reaching topic areas — environment, economy, and equity, sometimes known as the “three Es” of sustainability — is the educational opportunity Up the Road embraces. We also hope to sponsor and co-sponsor special events to foster public discussion and debate over current dilemmas and possible directions.

Public interest reporting related to sustainability and survival, however, is first and foremost on the agenda for Up the Road, though it will take time and major effort to “build” to the point where our voice will even be heard over the current cacophony. But we think that effort is worthwhile.

As former Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie points out, the economic decline of newspapers and for-profit media in general has led to a shocking drop in the educational, explanatory, and other public-service functions of journalism.

Consider these few facts from the Pew Report on the State of the Media 2010, researched and written by the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism:

  • Roughly a third of the newsroom jobs in American newspapers in 2001 are now gone.
  • In network television, the roster of journalists also continues to shrink. ABC News instituted three sets of cuts during the past year, NBC reportedly two, and CBS announced a big round in early 2010.
  • At news magazines, Time’s staff of 147 is less than half of the 304 it listed in 2003. Newsweek’s 150 is 15 percent less than its 176 in 2003, and 57 percent less than the 348 it listed in 1983.
  • For the third consecutive year, only digital and cable news saw audiences grow among the key sectors that deliver news. For cable broadcasting in 2009, those gains were largely captured by one network, Fox.

According to the Pew report, Americans are increasingly becoming media “consumers,” gravitating toward on-demand platforms “where they can get the news they want when they want it.”

But what about the news we consumers don’t want, or don’t know we need to know? As more news media respond to consumer demand for “news they want when they want it” to improve their bottom lines, who will birddog the news that citizens in a democracy need in order to be well informed about complex issues?

“What is paramount,” says Downie about the current media transformation, “is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”

We couldn’t have said that better ourselves. Providing some of that reporting here in Northern California is what we aim to do.


P.S. These long-winded emails from yours truly will now also be included, as separate blog entries, on Upbv the Road’s website under the apt title Road Noise. That should make it easier to keep track of where the conversation started and where it is going.

P.P.S. If you’d like to be included on our mailing list please say so:  editor@uptheroad.org.