Judy’s been connected to the Telluride area ever since her brother, John Mansfield, arrived here in the early 70s. Mansfield was one of an eager and talented bunch of young Telluride newcomers who began creating a new destiny for this once-ragged old mountain town. Both brother and sister are ace flyfishing fans, and Judy, who’s been coming here for 30 years, can tell you more about the secrets of fishing the San Miguel River than most natives.
About six years ago, looking to be a part-time resident, Judy built a gracious new home near Norwood (designed by Ridgway’s Lynn Kirchner) with, among other things, the wiring for a professional broadcast studio. Muller’s name and voice are familiar to legions of National Public Radio listeners, where she’s contributed punchy and relevant commentaries for 17 years. During those years, Judy was also a top-flight reporter for first CBS television news and then ABC-TV, where she frequently appeared on ABC Nightly News and Nightline. Not surprisingly, she’s now an associate professor of journalism at USC, in Los Angeles, where she’s made her home in Pacific Palisades since moving there in 1990 for ABC.
Right now, Judy’s on sabbatical from the university, to write her second book. In her predictable, enthusiastic, authoritative style, she talks about this new enterprise – which looks into small-town weekly newspapers in the American West. This ties in nicely with a theme she’s developed about the dramatic changes in America’s (and the world’s) news media and how people can judge which news sources to trust. Or how to become what she calls ‘media literate.”
To begin with, Judy’s inside view of big-time national television news took an abrupt turn when she left ABC news a few years ago. Judy and her longtime associate and former senior producer at ABC’s World News Tonight, Deanna Lee, now pair as featured speakers about “the new wild West of news.” Both women, Judy says, were “very nervous when we left ABC.” But they quickly discovered “that the media was changing and that being on the outside was very exciting.”
Along the way, Judy also realized that the “mainstream media gatekeepers” were equally nervous, because the internet had made it possible for “citizen journalists” all over the world to write and produce the news. This is democracy in action. “No longer can these gatekeepers tell the world what to know – or to think.”
Even though we’re talking over lunch, there’s no hesitation in her delivery. Clear, confident, emphatic. This, it’s apparent, is part of the talk she and Lee presented at a recent Vail Symposium titled Hot Topics. Judy says today anybody with a cell phone camera can put together a news program on websites such as YouTube and Flickr.
New technologies are changing everything, she says. Teaching USC graduate students puts Muller right where she wants to be – showing the way to use those new technologies. “At USC we teach convergence journalism – the use of video cameras, how to write long stories for print, how to do a radio show.” Her voice is full of excitement. “They can do everything. They learn to work as a team, creating an internet package, using all the tools, maps, slide shows.”
Serious news people like Muller – and I include myself here – are true believers in the importance of a free press. What’s critical now is for the public to “learn the difference between news and propaganda.” This will take “critical thinking skills” and finding a “list of blogs we can trust.” Actually, ABCNews.com is a good source for such internet news sources, she suggests.
At 60-something, Judy Muller remains camera-ready. Her blonde nouveau “Dutch Boy” hairstyle shapes classic features and intense blue eyes. But it’s her animation and her intensity that are what’s most compelling. Like when she tells me about her new book. She’s got a catchy title in mind – a word-of-mouth headline that she’s trying to verify – that “says it all” about what makes small-town weekly newspapers survive. Conversely, big-city readership continues to decline – dramatically. (News this week of the likely demise of The Albuquerque Tribune is a case in point.)
Muller says her USC graduate students “don’t read the newspapers.” In her new book, Muller plans to show why, in contrast to big city newspapers, small-town weeklies are thriving. And making money. That’s because these local newspapers print news that readers “care about” and simply won’t find in their capitol paper. (It takes a major small-town scandal or calamity to hit the pages of the Denver Post, Colorado’s struggling big- city daily.) Plus, the quirky personalities and prejudices of small-town newspaper editors shape small-town news stories. These editors are very often the owner-publishers as well, and thus, autonomous.
So, take heart, news junkies. Media master Judy Muller says dump your old way of “linear thinking” – she did embrace the coming age of internet news and work on your media literacy skills.
And meanwhile, love your local weekly.