News Column

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Bert Roughton column

August 10, 2013


Aug. 10--In this utopian village, the future seems so present.

Under a huge white tent set among meadows dotted with summer wildflowers, exactingly placed outdoor art and, of course, aspen trees, 2013 seems to fade into the past.

Gathered for the Aspen Ideas Festival, an astonishing array from America's intellectual pantheon is way ahead of the rest of us. It seems we are at the edge of a new epoch in which the old ways at last will give way to the new.

The 9-year-old festival is an annual gathering of big names assembled to discuss the big issues. Google this partial list of names from just one afternoon session: Eric Cantor, Hank Paulson, Katie Couric, Anna Deavere Smith, Gabrielle Giffords, Elena Kagan, Dick Costolo, Eric Lander and James Fallows. Wandering the festival grounds were the likes of Michael Eisner, Thomas Friedman, Arianna Huffington, Karl Rove, Lloyd Blankfein and Stephen Bryer. You get the idea.

I'm here looking for ideas that will help propel the newspaper into the future.

While you may have already noticed that the Internet has changed things, you apparently haven't seen anything yet. The digital revolution is entering some final climactic stage, where virtually nothing will remain as it is or once was. Think of the moments when the telephone vanquished the telegraph, when movies, radio and then television arose to utterly change everything.

Our own Robert Spano, in a panel discussion led by superstar cellist Yo Yo Ma, touches on this.

Spano, the music director of both the Atlanta Symphony and Aspen Music Festival and School, offers a bracing and succinct account of the world as it moves beneath us. He, of course, sees through the lens of someone selling a product -- classical music -- that is being buffeted severely by this epochal change, but his observations apply to us all.

"The orchestra developed in very particular socio-economic conditions that made sense for it to be what we have known it to be," Spano says. "We are no longer living in those conditions. The world changed.

"We're now living in a world where people don't subscribe to 24 weeks of concerts a year in advance," he says. "We know this because they don't."

He lays out the complex and contradictory challenge facing businesses and institutions. "What we're delivering, people still love," he says. "The challenges we face have to do with how we're going to structure, fund, nurture and perpetuate the particular form of music making."

Undeniably, we face similar issues with our journalism, which we are committed to sustaining and expanding in the world unfolding before us. It is news to no one that the challenges are daunting. But it was oddly comforting to hear in Aspen that our struggle is everyone's struggle. Few of the big names assembled here seemed to doubt that answers would be found, so long as we all comprehend the scale and breadth of change.

During the festival, I heard similar discussions across the industrial spectrum from mining to mars to movies. One afternoon, James L. Brooks, the creative force behind, among many things, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Terms of Endearment," and "The Simpsons," took note of just one emerging revolution: binge TV viewing.

Brooks confessed that he had just binged -- devoting his waking hours to watching the series -- on the 60 episodes of "The Wire." "It's a different experience -- I think it's a richer experience," he said. He compared it to the experience of reading a great book. "You can immerse yourself in it. It's changing everything."

Brooks, of course, is right. Everything is breaking from its familiar moorings. Classical music used to be available only in halls. Movies once held us captive in theaters, television ordered our lives through programming, and your 1,000 favorite songs existed only within stacks of pressed vinyl.

You now own it all on your smartphone. We live in worlds we design for ourselves.

It may take some time to understand what this all means, good, bad or indifferent. It seems clear that the water cooler has ceased to be the place for common experience -- maybe it's now much more about what we bring of the experiences from our customized worlds.

Power has shifted to the people, and people will never give it up. That means something.

On that point, Spano recalled a famous observation by the legendary manager Sol Hurok.

"When people don't want to come, nothing will stop them."


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