I've written a front-page story on bird flu, plus a splashy Health/Science section on how to prepare your business and family for the coming crisis, but every couple of weeks someone will say to me: "You write about science -- you should do a story on this bird flu thing. Have you heard of it?"
It's not much better around the newsroom. I've had at least three people speak to me about Avian Flu as if: 1. I've never covered H5N1; 2. We've never published anything about it; and 3. They think they're giving me a hot tip. And this is from people in the information business, people who are supposed to read the paper as part of their job.
Which brings me to a couple of conclusions:
1. People really aren't paying attention yet, and even those that are monitoring the situation are putting off preparations.
2. When the pandemic comes (and I sincerely hope it takes its sweet time picking up that transmissibility mutation), not only are people going to freak, they're going to go looking for people and institutions to blame.
Karl Rove knows this, which is one of the reasons why we've watched the White House, in its signature clumsy fashion, spend much of the past week trying to set the stage for its future pandemic narrative. Here's what they're going to say: "We tried to warn you! We were ahead of the curve!"
It barely matters that they chased around after the wrong things, proposing to spend 80 percent of their newfound H5N1 billions on useless stockpiles of Tamiflu instead of building surplus vaccine production facilities to mothball until we need them. The government is playing public relations, not making serious preparations, and history will not judge its role kindly.
Thing is, we'll still have a government when all this is over. But we may not have a "mainstream media" in the same way we do today. And newspapers are particularly at risk.
Once the pandemic comes to call, once the schools shut down and the travel restrictions pop up and the stores close and the recession begins, you're going to see the same people who can't be bothered to read about "some flu in Asia" today transformed into H5N1 experts. They're going to be hovering over every post at Effect Measure, speculating on the "true identity" of Revere, debating the relative credibility of Recombinomics, trying to edit the flu wiki. They're going to be righteously indignant, loud and opinionated.
In short: Total pains in the ass.
Newspapers will try to cater to this hunger for news and understanding, but it will be too late. Once the flu becomes "the story," those of us in the newspaper business are going to make H5N1 the only story for an extended period. We'll play catch-up with a vengeance, competing to top each other in the race to prove, once again, that nothing exceeds like excess.
But these pains in the ass, these newly empowered information users with no job to go to and nothing to do but sit at their computers, are going to be learning something important. When they look at the archives, they're going to realize that flu bloggers have been talking about, studying and -- well -- covering the hell out of the pending crisis since well back in 2004.
Their local newspaper? Eh... not so much.
What will they think when they compare press coverage of the West Nile virus to the the looming threat of a global pandemic? What thought will occur to them when they review the context-free fear-mongering of the great smallpox hype of 2002-03?
The more they learn about what the media didn't tell them, the angrier they're going to be. And they're going to remember this breach of trust for a long, long time.
In the midst of a pandemic, you're going to turn to the web -- and increasingly to topic-expert bloggers, not journalists -- for the important information. Newspapers? Hell, who wants to pick up a potentially germ-covered physical object that some stranger just threw at your porch?
The coming pandemic will isolate us from each other physically while it simultaneously connects us in new virtual communities. By the time the survivors emerge from their homes and the public spaces reopen, each and every one of us will have new ways of getting information, new ways of shopping, new ways of building community and sustaining relationships.
Many of our pre-pandemic, brick-and-mortar institutions are going to implode in spectacular fashion. Yes, it seems unlikely... but then again, who in their right mind thought, in 1988, that the Berlin Wall was about to come crashing down?
Newspaper reporters and editors would do well to remember that the world can change faster than we're able to write about it. And it sometimes does.
Fasten your seatbelt, Brenda Starr.
(Equal credit for this post to Janet, since we developed this idea together on the drive back from ConvergeSouth on Sunday. -- dc)