More reflections on the Town Hall | Bleader

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More reflections on the Town Hall

Posted By on 02.25.09 at 10:27 AM

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David Harrell, “erstwhile journalist and current salesguy who nevertheless hasn't stopped believing.”

"The newspaper is not dead. Local and niche publications live and for all I know, may even grow. But the mass-market, general circulation newspaper that tries to be all things to all people, I think, is dead. Will I miss it? Can't say. I think it was a dubious product to begin with. It became this sort of bloated, bland, homogenized product which was too afraid to offend, too tied to the so-called pillars of the community to ask deep enough questions enough of the time.

"The media of the future may not be able to support the numbers of journalism or ‘communication’ grads that found employment in the past, but c'mon -- a lot of those people were employed producing fluff or semifluff that nobody really needs. We're probably better off if the notion of what news is gets pared back to the essentials. As former NBC news head Reuven Frank said: ‘News is what someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.’

"The future promises a diversity of models to serve diverse functions for diverse niches. The decentralization of the music industry provides a scintilla of hope. Musicians are finding ways to make music and get paid independently. The dream of being among the infinitesimal sliver who'll get the major-label deal, score a big national hit and become a multimillionaire, is being abandoned for the more prosaic, realistic and sustainable goal of just making a humble living doing what one loves and controlling one's own art. In both the realms of music and information, decentralization means that no longer do we have to sell ourselves to those who've amassed towering heaps of capital who can then finance and disseminate our work.

"So what will the future look like for journalists? I really have no idea, but I know what I'd like to see. We need both nonprofits and for-profits. We need both advertiser-driven and subscriber-driven media. We need media that report straight and we need media that report from the so-called ‘right’ and ‘left.’ We need most of all, more populist media that can think outside of the left-right cage and transcend (not gloss over) those rather contrived divisions. We need objective reporting from official sources and we need deep, fearless investigative reporting with attitude. In the aftermath of this shakeup we may find that trend followers and timeservers fall away, leaving only the core of true believers who still hold to the quasi-religious conviction that journalism is not about titillating us with celebrity and sensationalism but about empowering people; about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted; about using information to level the balance of power in society."

Jen Shea, student

"I think nearly everyone who spoke contributed something useful. But I also kept recalling the parable about the blind men and the elephant.

"Often people began with a worthwhile observation, then leapt to problematic conclusions. For example: the journalist who stood to say that fact-checkers and editors are necessities, not luxuries. I was listening up to that point. But she lost me, and at least a few others, when she started carrying on about journalists’ exceptional critical faculties — vs. those of the dumb, credulous public. I don’t think you can understand the current of anger that ran through other comments without understanding how it sounds when journalists say those things.

"At the same time, the ‘outsiders’ made some deeply misguided statements. Overall I was pleasantly surprised, both these guys had thoughtful comments; however:

"One of the most interesting moments came after [Chi-Town Daily News's} Geoff Dougherty’s point about free content online— when he said that train had left the station, and to prove it, asked if those under 40 would be willing to pay for news content. It was nearly an even split (from what I could tell).

"The problem with Dougherty’s question was, it didn’t adequately define ‘pay.’ First I raised my hand for ‘wouldn’t,’ because I’ve read too many arguments from older folks who think it’s as simple as putting up a subscription wall. In that sense, Dougherty’s right, it would be disastrous. But the reasons for that have nothing to do with newspapers per se, or their value to young people. It’s about interface design and transaction costs (the same principle applies to, say, crafting terms-of-service agreements: users won’t go through the process if they confront a big hassle up front). And the WSJ doesn’t count.

"My guess is most young folks who raised their hands­ were thinking in terms of Web 2.0 culture & behavioral patterns. Glancing at those who raised their hands for ‘would,’ and at their facial expressions, they seemed more to be answering the question, ‘Do you believe it’s reasonable to pay some modest amount for your primary source(s) of news?’

"At least that was my sense. If it’s the latter question, I’d also raise my hand; I don’t think that’s the problem. In the last few years I’ve gone from being the only person in my peer group who subscribed to anything, to hearing friends talk about shelling out for the New Yorker, NPR, the Economist, Newsweek, salon.com, etc. So I’d caution against reading too much into the habits of 19-year-olds; I’m not sure they’ve ever been willing to pay for news." 

Lynn Stiefel, Pioneer Press reporter and Newspaper Guild leader

"I started feeling really uncomfortable listening to the young bloggers castigate the old dinosaurs about the changing of the guard of journalism. It wasn't our charges of theft or their charges of our self-righteousness. I think it was a fundamental philosophical difference. During a long career in radio, TV and print journalism, the one constant was that I never had anything to do with the advertising, circulation, sales, etc. side of the business. In fact, we made sure the firewall was solid (remember the Virginia Gerst debacle?). So to hear the ‘new’ face of journalism tell us old fogeys to get out there and sell was disturbing.

"I've never much liked any of the management I've worked for in the last 31 years. I detested some; I tolerated others. But it was important that I worked for someone, so that I could do the journalism stuff, and they did the rest. I always thought that was the necessary set-up -- that we reported and presented as factually as possible the news of the day in as protected a way possible so that it could be considered credible, untainted, unbiased and reliable. That, of course, is not the new model of citizen journalism. The reporter's opinion should be irrelevant. The facts should speak for themselves.

"I keep going back to what Ken Davis said about newspapers being the start of the day's dialogue, being the ‘spine.’ That's the function I still don't understand how would be accomplished with Internet-only Web sites disaggregating news on a community-of-interest basis. Paging through a paper, you see articles that interest you that you didn't know would. How do we see outside of our own interests if we don't ‘happen’ upon news we didn't know would interest us?

"And why let the most popular story of the day rule? I report about Glenview installing sewers because I monitor how village officials spend taxpayer money. That's my watchdog function. Who's going to do it if the newspaper goes away? Newspapers and media have tried to kill the beat system for decades, but it stays alive. Why? Because vigilance can be accomplished no other way.

"Newspapers serving individual suburbs, like Pioneer Press's, will probably survive one way or another, if not through Sun-Times Media Group than with whoever buys them or picks up the pieces. Whether or not they will want me or will want to pay me is another matter. We've worked hard as a Guild to establish somewhat of living wages and decent working conditions, and I'd be loathe to give that up without a real fight. That will be my Virginia Gerst moment -- will my passion for journalism outweigh my personal goals to feed my children and send them to college?

"I remember back to my 20s, when I was paid $180 a week, worked 80 hours a week, and frankly would have paid my employer anything to allow me to work at this profession. That's the passion I saw with some of those young bloggers. But don't we all eventually become the homeowners and bill payers and taxpayers that we report about? Won't they? Then what?

"Not to be totally depressing, I was heartened to see a roomful of journalists concerned about our livelihoods and democracy. Someone called it a support group meeting, and I liked that."

Linda Lutton, education reporter, WBEZ

"I'm sorry the conversation seemed to divide along generational lines, because I actually don't believe that dichotomy is as marked as it appeared to be at the Townhall. Or maybe I don't count as young anymore? (I'm still under 40!)

"Any reporter will tell you that there's a certain amount of luck in this game, but it only works when coupled with hard work and digging. Since leaving the meeting Sunday, I've thought over and over about the guy [Brad Flora] from the Windy Citizen happening upon a video of police brutality (a video that was already posted to YouTube, by the way). Compare that to the reporting that John Conroy was able to do at the Reader--reporting that documented systemic police brutality and abuse...reporting that's now gone. THAT's the sort of reporting that people are afraid to lose, and THAT's why the Townhall was called.

"I loved some of the ideas--a new City News Bureau...extracting the Sun-Times' newsroom from the rest of the company should the whole thing teeter and fall... the notion that foundations could play some sort of role for a transitional period. My takeaway from the Townhall is that there will be people interested in working on some of these ideas, and there will be others who want to continue pursuing what they're doing now... that's fine. We don't all have to agree. But those interested in saving some of the infrastructure and institutional knowledge that is being lost already should meet again, sans snarky commentators."

Link to earlier responses.

To listen to the Town Hall, click here.

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