Walter Cronkite 1916-2009

It’s beyond trite to say this, but it does feel like the death of Walter Cronkite is the end of an era.

President Obama’s quote encapsulates this change best:

“He brought us all those stories large and small which would come to define the 20th century.  That’s why we love Walter, because in an era before blogs and e-mail, cellphones and cable, he was the news. Walter invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down.”

It’s true, there just isn’t today that one singular voice that defines the culture.  But I’m not so sure that is all bad.  As Chris Anderson pointed out in The Long Tail, we didn’t all watch the Big Three network because the programming was so good.  There wasn’t anything else on.

I think the future looks more like Seth Godin’s book Tribes.  And in that world there isn’t one Walter Cronkite, there are tons and tons of Walter Cronkites, each leading his own little tribe.

The upside to the old way was a sense of community.  The downside is cultural conformity and a certain level of mediocrity.  (In a three-channel world you only have to be better than the other two.)

So that means the upside to the new way is everyone gets what they want, when the want it.  The downside is a fragmentation of cultural experience.  Life sometimes feels a bit like a modern-day Tower of Babel with everyone having a different conversation.

I think there are two ways to mitigate the downside and actually leverage the upside.  And both involve cross-pollination.

First, no one belongs to just one tribe.  So, for example, I might belong to tribes for Mommies, for communications/PR professionals, for folks in the email industry specifically, for Red Sox fans … Everyone might belong to dozens of tribes or more.  And of course you bring stuff from one tribe to your other tribes.

Second, the big tribe leaders know a lot of other big tribe leaders and they pass information between them, which then passes down to the tribes.

Change is hard.  But it can also be good.  We’ll all miss Walter Cronkite and the singular voice that he represented.  And we will certainly miss his amazing storytelling abilities.  My hope for the future is that more opportunities for great storytellers to have a forum for their stories.  I think Mr. Cronkite would agree with that, too.