Light in the Digital Age: Media Panel

I joined a media panel September 24 at Tattered Cover in downtown Denver. There were a few sparks. I sat right next to fellow panelist Greg Moore, which was a great position to heap abuse on the Denver Post (which Moore edits). One guy treated the question period as his personal monologue time and finally was asked to leave with security.

Yet the panelists also shared much common ground, and the discussion was interesting. Here I recount much of it. (Due to the fact that I sat on the panel, I was unable to capture any photographs or video of the event.)

The event was sponsored by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and moderated Thomas Kelley. The other panelists were Wendy Norris, founding editor of the Colorado Independent; Dominic Graziano, editor of the campus Metropolitan; and Adrienne Russell, a professor at the University of Denver.

The title of the event was ominous: “Darkness in the Digital Age: Has the Advent of Citizen Journalism, the Blogosphere, and the Demise of Newspapers Made Us Less Well-Informed?” When Kelley asked us for our comments beforehand, I send back a note, “I do not see ‘darkness’ in the digital age, but more light. The average person can much more easily obtain quality news and views than ever before in human history.”

In case you’re wondering how I came to sit on a panel with the likes of Greg Moore, here’s what Kelley said in his introduction: “Finally we have Ari Armstrong, a writer of several prolific and eloquent blogs, some say veering toward the right. I find him to be thoughtful.” This elicited a chuckle. So I was the token conservative (even though, as I later noted, I’m not really a conservative). At any rate I was delighted to be invited, and Kelley ran an informative and well-attended event.

Prior to the event, Kelley sent out some questions to set the tone for the evening:

1. What will become of the newspaper business model in the next five to ten years? Is there any hope for advertising as a means of supporting original reporting? Is public or non-profit subsidization the answer?

2. Is what we see on the internet from sources other than mainstream media really journalism? Are we entering a “post-journalism” era? If the industry of independent reporting is dying, where are the bloggers and the cable commentators going to get their content?

3. What do we need to keep the public service component (by that I mean digging out information on all subjects of public interest and reporting it according to a code of ethics that requires disinterest) of the newspaper business alive?

4. What is the cultural effect of a post-journalism era? Are we becoming more partisan, less broadly educated, and more exposed to un-debunked bogus information?

By luck of the draw, I spoke first. Following are my (slightly redacted) comments. In a follow-up post I’ll continue with the comments of other panelists.

One of the questions that was asked of us in e-mail prior to the event had to do with what’s going to happen now — it’s kind of a “woe is us” scenario — what’s happening now that many newspapers are going out of business. I think the title is “Darkness in the Digital Age.” … To me, I see a lot of lightness in the digital age. So that’s kind of the theme that I want to focus on.

To me, there’s been no better time, ever, to be a consumer of journalism. Today I read articles from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Denver Post, Denver Daily, Westword, Colorado Independent, and I could probably name a dozen others if I’d kept track of that during the day.

At the click of a button you can read the best quality journalism in the world, which you simply couldn’t do before [the interent]. I remember years ago, stringing a telephone line to my computer, and that was pre-internet. So now we have more opportunity than ever as consumers of news.

But then of course there’s the problem of if you’re a professional journalist. I guess we’re shipping some more of ours off to Canada these days, from the old [Rocky Mountain News] positions. So there are definitely some transitional problems here.

I’m sure other people here know more about the industry. But I just wanted to mention a few examples of how other publications are solving these problems.

So the Wall Street Journal has in fact gone to paid, online subscriptions, and then they make their editorial content available for free.

The weeklies, Westword and Boulder Weekly, seem to be doing pretty well with a combination of online ads and print ads. But they have less printing costs, obviously. And the Westword has cut back, obviously, too.

Other things like NPR, Face the State on the right, Progress Now on the left (which does some journalism), operate by philanthropy. And this is great. So I tend to be free-market oriented, but to me voluntary charity, philanthropy, is a perfectly legitimate part of the free market.

I just looked up the Christian Science Monitor. They’re going from a print publication to a strictly online publication. But they do have a subsciption-based weekly publication, and they also will charge you for a “Daily News Briefing” for $5.75 per month. So I don’t know if that’s going to work for them, but there are certainly people who are trying to find the balance between philanthropy, online advertising, print advertising [and subscriptions].

I’m going to jump now to one of these points that was mentioned prior to us coming on, which is: What’s going to happen if the flow of journalism stops going from established newspapers to bloggers? I want to say that that whole premise is basically false.

There’s not a one-way flow of information. There’s a two-way flow of information. Now it’s true that a lot of bloggers tend to focus on commentary, which means they’re integrating news facts that they’re reading around them, such as Mike Littwin might do at the Denver Post or the editorial staff might do. So it’s a similar function.

But that’s not the only function. Just like Mike Littwin might do original journalism, original investigative work, so bloggers might do the same thing. And often the journalism flow is coming back to the newspapers. So I’m just going to give a few examples here.

Last year, Katy Human of the Denver Post wrote an article about health insurance, and about the effects of children and health insurance, and the effects of not having any. And she mentioned these studies that prove her point. Well, the studies sounded a little bit fishy to me, so I sent her an e-mail and said, hey, why don’t you send me what the list of your studies is. And she hemmed and hawed, and finally I sent an e-mail to David Kopel and Jason Salzman, because at the time they were the media critics at the [Rocky Mountain News], and finally she was persuaded to hand over her studies.

But then David Kopel wrote up a follow up for the Rocky, pointing out that none of the studies supported her point.

So this is an example I thought of bloggers and people on the editorial side sending feedback to the journalism side of the news.

I’ll just give one more example. The Denver Post published an op-ed by a guy named T. R. Reid (again on the health policy issue, since that’s what’s hot). [Read my critique.] And he completely misstated international comparisons on waiting times for elective surgeries. Now I know this because I looked it up. I did the research, I looked at the original sources, and I found the real stats. He simply misstated them. And he also omitted stats on emergency visits and specialists. Unfortunately, the Denver Post chose not to run my letter correcting that piece. But nevertheless the flow of journalism goes both ways.

I wanted to quickly run through a few examples of some real journalism being done by bloggers. And I also contribute to a group of vaguely right-wing, conservative bloggers called the People’s Press Collective. So I want to mention several examples.

If you want to hear what people are saying at some of these rallies — the tax rallies, Tea Party rallies — there’s really no other place to look, if you want extended interviews with the actual participants, than my web page. [Listen to interviews from 4/15, 7/4, 7/28, 8/6, and 9/12.] Because I got my video camera, interviewed them extensively, and had a lot of them published online. The Denver Post maybe quoted one or two people in very short snippets (and that’s just the nature of the medium). So that’s one example of positive journalism.

When an economists named Thomas Woods came to Colorado to speak about his new book on economics, I looked up some of his older articles in which he blasted abolitionists and was praising antebellum culture. So I thought that was a little odd. I thought that was worth looking up as a journalistic enterprise.

Earlier this year, in response to a CNN report, I conducted my own “Low-Carb Food Stamp Diet.” Now this was more proactive, obviously — I was part of the story. But I thought it was a fun way to illustrate some of the facts surrounding the story.

In 2007, I solicited and published a letter from Mark Udall about the separation of church and state, which I thought was a pivotal issue in that election.

So you heard about the vandalism at the Denver Democratic Headquarters. Thankfully Denver police caught the [alleged] perpetrator, the name of Schwenkler. One of my friends, Michael Sandoval, did some searching online and found that this character had been paid by a left-wing organization to do Democratic campaign work. So this was an important break in a big story.

I’ll just give one more. A guy named Todd Shepherd, who actually works for the Independence Institute, recently found that Jared Polis, the congressman up in the Boulder area, was investing in medical tourism, meaning companies that specialize in taking people to other countries to get medical treatment. Which I thought was an interesting detail given the current national debates.

My main point here is that journalism works both ways. Independents and bloggers can feed back journalism to newspapers, and they can do their own original investigative reporting. And this is a great thing. So, while it stinks if you were an employee of the Rocky Mountain News (and I don’t know if the Post is looking at any layoffs, hopefully not), in the world of independent writing and blogging, there’s been an explosion of great content.

One thought on “Light in the Digital Age: Media Panel

  1. Anonymous

    And the Woods event was nevertheless a packed and enthusiastic house. If you look into Woods’ past you’ll also find him supporting the wars you love so much. He has changed his mind on that as well, so it would be stupid and juvenile to dwell on that.

    Yes, he favors secession, but so did Lysander Spooner, who helped to bankroll John Brown.

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