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Future of Media: The Young Turk Edition 

Among the conclusions at last week’s Chicago Media Future Conference: professional journalism is an anomaly, nobody’s ever really paid for news, and if you see a helicopter, you can surmise for yourself that the president’s in town.

Not miked and not missed—the old guard of Chicago journalism. Apoplectic and apocalyptic, they had their say about the sea change in media at February's Chicago Journalism Town Hall. Last Saturday's Chicago Media Future Conference at Columbia College was for the young Turks.

Not present but possibly should have been—somebody from mainstream media to tell these idealists that if they're offended by the idea of monetizing content—well, too damn bad. It's our content, an MSM rep might have asserted, and if you don't want to pay for it, cover the next war on your own dime.

To which, of course, one of the bright young panelists who did speak at the conference would have snapped back, "You mean like the war on the streets that just broke out in Tehran, the one we're following in real time thanks to gallant Irani twitterers?"

The conference itself was amply documented via Twitter, and for a time the tweets actually appeared on a screen above the heads of the panelists. Somebody twittered, in apparent response to the low-grade angst that could be felt in the auditorium over the question of a living wage, "Hey everybody—the future of media is exciting, not scary. We get to make it in our own image. That's good."

EveryBlock cofounder Daniel X. O'Neil, speaking on the panel "Why the News Still Matters," went this tweet one better. "I think there's just a lot of real unnecessary negativism about journalism," he told the 170 or so people in attendance. "Frankly, I think it's going to be great. I swear to God we'll look back ten years from now and we'll all be making an insane amount of money and we're going to look at each other and we're going to say, 'Hey, you were there that day! Remember, we all thought we were screwed?' No, we're not. Everything's great. It's literally impossible for the answer to the question 'What happened?' not to be valuable."

There were few other optimists quite so cockeyed. "I don't know if it's ten years. I don't know how many years it's going to be," said copanelist Rich Gordon of the Medill Readership Institute, and he told the young audience to understand that the era of journalism being a reliable source of a living wage was a historical "anomaly."

When the future is fraught with uncertainty it helps to be young and brave and not afraid to starve. And something else might be essential. This sine qua non is naivete, a key ingredient of The New News: Journalism We Want and Need, a report commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust, just published by the Chicago Media Workshop, and distributed at the conference. It's an earnest, ungainly attempt at a "snapshot" of online journalism in Chicago, and although the snapshot is fairly depressing the report doesn't seem to notice this.

"Most of the online publications aren't backed by an established organization," it allows, "and function as a side project of an individual or group rather than a core mission." Meanwhile, on the local MSM front: "It seems clear that there is less local news in our two leading newspapers today than there was 20 years ago." Moreover, "Trends suggest online news publications are likely to supplement, not replace these news outlets."

In other words, Chicago newspapers aren't what they used to be, and online journalism is in no position to make up the difference. But onward and upward anyway. The report's laced with gusts of ingenuous enthusiasm. For Charles Benton, CEO of the media-focused Benton Foundation, progress is a matter of journalists hooking up with their BFFs the politicians. "The question before us now, then, is, where do we want to end up?" he writes in The New News. "For it is through the far-seeing policy goals of the public sector that we can help guide the dynamic innovations and flexibility of the private sector."

Greg Sanders, an IT specialist for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, says in the report that "the Web we know and love is no more than the tip of a very large iceberg." He looks forward to "super-broadband," which "would allow viewers to tune into events and content from an almost infinite number of sources, in real time or plucked from archives, possibly marginalizing traditional news media even further." I found myself wondering if he expects us all to live like the precogs in Minority Report, floating in brine, our brains hooked to computers, absorbing content every second of the day yet falling ever further behind.

If the old guard perceives the collapse of the MSM as a disaster out of which just maybe some good might come, the young Turks believe they're witnessing—and abetting—a redemptive and overdue paradigm shift. To the collapse of MSM they say, good riddance.

Dan Sinker, founder of the late zine Punk Planet who's now teaching journalism at Columbia College, moderated the first panel, "Why the News Still Matters." No one doubted that it did; but the theme inspired plenty of discussion of what news is, of what news is vital as distinct from merely tasty, and of where the news will be coming from and what it will look like.

O'Neil made this observation:

"I don't think we've lost any news coverage whatsoever," he said. "I found out from Facebook this morning that apparently the president of the United States is in town, is what it seems to be, and that's based on a couple of different people who live in different parts of the city saying that they spotted a military helicopter. So that's pretty good coverage as far as I'm concerned. That's good news—that he's here, and also that I learned it."

This prompted Gapers Block's Andrew Huff to add, "Yeah, something that I've talked a lot about online and in person with people is that the newspaper may be dying, if you want to call it that, the mode in which we receive our news may be being lost, but the news itself is still out there in different forms and we need to try a little harder to find some of it, but a lot of it is there in plain sight and we just have to collect it all."

Gordon chipped in a hiding-in-plain-sight experience of his own. "On my way here I encountered people putting up some barricades," he announced. He now surmised, having heard from O'Neil and putting two and two together, that it might have been a crew blocking off traffic routes for the president.

I was tempted to raise my hand and say I knew for certain that the president was coming to town (to address the American Medical Association on his health care plan), because I'd read it in the papers. Was the news now something to be deduced if not from the entrails of chickens then from Facebook reports of helicopter sightings?

Amanda Maurer, head of social media for the Tribune, talked about the problem the Tribune was having "putting more and more stuff out there" online but attracting "fewer and fewer local eyeballs," the ones of interest to local advertisers. "That's an issue we'll have to address," she said.

Huff then said, "This may be jumping ahead a little bit in our conversation but I think one of the roles that journalists can play in the future is to be sort of an arbiter of what all of this mass amount of information is worth paying attention to, and sort of curating a news experience. Finding out all of that distributed content and bringing it into one place so people don't have to go searching, and finding all of those little bits that they would be interested in if they knew where to find them."

And then O'Neil asserted, "We could talk all day about the deprofessionalization of journalism. It's just nothing to be afraid of. Those people need to be encouraged. I would love to encourage more flat coverage, because there's so much hot heat neighborhood anger get-rid-of-the-alderman type of coverage of news out there, but what's underneath it is insanely valuable answers of what's going on and it's hidden frankly in a lot of heat!"

The panelists were consecutively affirming: the need to reach the right readers rather than simply a lot of readers; a journalism that collects, culls, and organizes information for public consumption; and dispassionate, inquisitive, dare I say objective reporting. The young Turks reinventing the business won't have to reinvent the wheel.

The question of whether the new journalism will pay for itself was taken up by the second panel, a more worldly group than the first. "Oddly, the economics of doing news on the Internet is the opposite of what everybody thought. You can't make any money with narrowcasting," said Patrick Spain, CEO of the mega-aggregator Newser. "If you don't have five million people it's very hard to have a commercially viable business in the news business." At the moment, he noted, Newser has two million. "It's one of the challenges for local news. There are nine million people in Chicago. To get five million of them to read your site strikes me as next to impossible."

Which is why, said Steve Rhodes, creator of the Beachwood Reporter, narrowcasting is a good way to go—niche sites that attract small numbers of passionate readers willing to pay to sustain them and possibly self-segregating enough to intrigue specific advertisers. Rhodes wants his three-year-old site to be valued for original, indispensable commentary. But for now it's hand-to-mouth. He said he's taken in "thousands of dollars in memberships, which are donations, which someday will come with benefits—hopefully."

Spain focused on scale. He said newspapers used to be able to charge advertisers fortunes because they were the only game in town. "Online there's not the same scarcity. There are too many ways to reach readers," he went on. "The economics of advertising have so transformed things that it's virtually impossible to make any money below five million and make any real money below 25 million uniques."

Someone twittered, "Well, if there is no way to make $ then lets all go home."

Spain went on, "Who are going to be the billion-dollar media companies of the future? I don't think there are going to be any. I think Arianna Huffington will replace the New York Times as the main source of general news in the United States, and she'll be a $100 million company instead of a $3 billion company."

Sinker twittered: "Billion dollar media com­panies won't exist in the future? Thank god."

Rhodes said he didn't think the Huffington Post could exist without the New York Times, and it was a measure of either the audience's respect for the Times or loathing of the freeloading HuffPo that people applauded. Spain said the Times had been passed up by bloggers as a source of specialized information. "We don't need the New York Times," he said. "You'd better not need it—because it's not going to exist in a year and a half. It's gone."

The idea of charging for content almost didn't even come up. The last person in the audience to put a question to the second panel asked, with a pro forma air, what everyone thought of the paid content model.

News, said Spain, is something "no one has ever charged for in the history of news. Essentially, newspapers were free. You paid something for two reasons—so the newspaper could tell the advertiser you were an engaged reader, and two, to subsidize, but not wholly pay for, the cost of printing and distribution. So all the network news—always free. News has always been free. And so charging for it, except for the WSJ exception, the financial exception, has never happened."

This struck me as nonsense and a personal insult. Do I buy the local papers just for the comics, the New York Times for the crossword puzzles, the Economist for the cachet? The questioner seemed to buy it, though. "And I've always found that it only works," he said, in an apparent reference to the Wall Street Journal exception, "if it's something that you can write off on your taxes."

But why isn't it? Why isn't what we pay for news deducted as a necessary expense of citizenship? I thought the conference had just arrived at an excellent idea. But on that note, it was over.

For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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