Media Panel: Discussion Continues

The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition hosted a media panel September 24 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Previously I transcribed my opening comments and added a quick answer to a participant who asked whether she should enter journalism. Here I continue my review of the discussion.

First, though, as an aside, just yesterday I heard about the Nevada News Bureau, edited by conservative Elizabeth Crum (whom I met at the Sam Adams Alliance earlier this year). This service allows free, attributed reproduction of content. The about page states: “We’re launching this news service in part because the owners of newspapers and television news teams have, in many cases, cut back on statehouse reporting and investigative journalism which in turn has eroded their ability to be a true ‘watchdog’ for the voter and taxpayer. … The Nevada News Bureau is a non-profit project of Citizen Outreach, a 501(c)(3) exempt organization.” So, I don’t know anything about that nonprofit, and I don’t know what caliber of journalism the service will produce, but it struck me as an interesting model.

Now on with the media panel discussion. I’m pulling quotes from the longer recording, and again these quotes are slightly redacted to ease the transition to text.

Adrienne Russell added weight to my point that independent writers often conduct original journalism: “What are bloggers going to do if mainstream journalism dies [one of the questions asked]? I think anyone who knows anybody who is an online journalist knows many many cases of journalism stories that break into the larger news media landscape that actually originated in the blogosphere. And most often times, it’s not even traced back to that after the first couple hours or the first day.”

Russell continued:

I think what I want to try to focus on for my few minutes is…. [journalism’s] role as a public service or a public interest. … What is the future of newspapers? But I think what obviously we really should be asking is, what is the future of journalism, and its ability to facilitate, and further, and make for a healthy public discourse, in this democracy and all over the world. …

I think those two questions go hand in hand. But recently there have been all these stats that have come out, specifically one recently from the Pew Foundation… report that says that web traffic to the highest ranked news sites has gone up 27 percent from 2007 to 2008. And so what does that tell us? I’m actually not a huge stats fan, I usually don’t throw them around. I’m more of a cultural studies person. But what does that tell us? It tells us that people are still interested in news.

And also I recently read that the Columbia journalism program, the masters degree program, got almost twice as many applicants this year as they did last year, which also signifies something about our attitude, and our understanding, and our relationship with journalism in this country.

… I think that the question of the business model has to look beyond newspapers, and has to look at all of these great examples that are actually emerging and beginning to flourish. Like, whether or not you like the politics associated with them, or you think they could be sustained in this giant model, things like the Colorado Independent, the Huffington Post, Slate — there’s all these examples of journalism that is flourishing, that is serious journalism. … One of the better examples is ProPublica…

So probably what needs to happen is, traditional news organizations need to keep paying really close attention to what’s going on with these successful models, whether they be for profit or not for profit. …

Like Ari said, this is a time of innovation and great flourishing in terms of journalism, if not the journalism industry as we know it. And one of the reasons for this is that the new media technology, which is so often framed as threatening journalism as we know it, is creating these new possibilities for people to get involved in creating media. …

So I think embedded in one of your questions was this idea of, are we just going to be inundated with this information that hasn’t yet been debunked, and what are we going to do with it, and how are we going to… function without the filters that we’ve come to depend on. An the answer to this, to me, is that we’re all, not only having an increased capacity to create media, but in that process we’re learning how to assess it. So we’re learning — we have to learn a higher level of media literacy. So, in that way, we’re so much more engaged in the media landscape than we ever could be.

And the old model was great in certain respects, but I think we all know that it also privileged particular sectors of society, it propped up the status quo, it’s failed us in major ways. In ways I’m not sure that is possible anymore, given the dynamic environment where people are actually contributing. …

Dominic Graziano feared that his classes aren’t preparing future journalists for new media. He also said he thinks more people are applying to graduate school “because there’s no jobs.” Russell said at least “they must have a faith that there will be [jobs available] some day.”

Graziano continued:

The points that we’re making about how journalism — decent, investigative journalism — can still be seen on the internet… I truly believe that. … But, my problem as a student at least, is [this.] We can take this upon ourselves. Every citizen can take it upon themselves to look into whatever they believe deserves looking into, and write a story about it. The question is where does the money come from. As a blogger… you’re not going to get corporate sponsorship. …

I can spend weeks up on weeks researching a story, and doing interviews, and stuff like that, and post it up on my blog, and it can get picked up by CNN, or the Post, and they can spend eighty bucks as a freelancer. …

The problem with getting rid of corporate journalism is you get rid of the possibility of a salary. And when everybody’s working freelance hours on freelance budgets, we will see a decrease… What happens when we’re not covering everything? What happens when we can’t be at every [hearing?] in the courtroom? … Where are people going to get this information? … That’s really what concerns me the most about the future of journalism.

Ari talks about bloggers being able to provide feedback to content that’s being published. But when that content isn’t being published, when bloggers are responsible for all that content, it’s going to turn into very partisan arguments… People will visit the websites that either completely support what they already believe, or [are] completely against what they already believe, in order just to argue with it.

We need to focus a lot more on balanced reporting, fair reporting, in-depth reporting. And my fear, as a student, and as a journalist, is that as everything moves away from these media giants, is you lose the ability to pay somebody to do a good job.

I thought of the fact that newspapers of old tended to be overtly partisan, but I never saw the opportunity to discuss this point at the forum.

Wendy Norris followed:

… I think there is a crisis in our nation around critical thinking. And that hits on the editorial/journalistic side, and that hits on the readership side. People are too willing to believe whatever is delivered to them, whether it’s in the newspaper, or a blog, or on television. And I think Tom’s example of Justice Sotomayor is a very good example of that. It’s very easy to find that speech online and learn that those remarks were taken completely out of context.

And I think that we talk a lot in this country about First Amendment rights, but there are also responsibilities with the First Amendment. And I think that if we’re going to find a new way to deliver news content — and I’m a huge proponent of blowing up what we’ve got now and starting anew, because it just simply does not work in this era — then we need to be really honest about what it is that we’re trying to do and what it is as news consumers that we want.

Norris said that even when working with a nonprofit organization, “I had to fight constantly to do the kind of investigative reporting that I thought was important for this community to have access to.” She said that readers have a responsibility to support something better than fluff and sensationalism.

Greg Moore rounded out the introductory remarks:

I’m really surprised that so many people are out tonight. I think it’s great, and to see so many young people in the audience is really heartening.

The first question was, 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? And then the whole thing about public or nonprofit subsidization.

I don’t believe, first, that we’re in a post-journalism era. We are not. And I don’t think we’ll ever be in a post-journalism era. It may take on different forms or be done by a disaggregated sort of collection of people like what we’re beginning to see now. But there’re always going to be things happening that we didn’t know, or that we’re intensely interested in. We’ll always be looking for people to help us understand what’s happening.

In the next five to ten years, I think that newspapers will be still around. I think there’s something about the authentication of an event that is really important. I’ll just give you an example. When Barack Obama won the election, that was posted online. But people were lined up in our lobby to get a newspaper. Why? Because 100 years from now, would you rather have a printout from this blog or whatever, or would you rather have a 92-point headline that declares the election of the first black president? That’s simple.

If your kid runs for 350 yards for the football game, do you want a printout that could have been manipulated or whatever, or would you want it in a newspaper? You’d want it in a newspaper.

So I think there’ll be newspapers. I think we’ll be smaller. I think we probably will come out less frequently. I think it’ll cost more. I think the notion of being a paper of record, of trying to cover every city council meeting and things of that nature, will increasingly be left to bloggers and other sort of independent gatherers of news and information. …

In terms of advertising being a means of supporting original [journalism]… right now advertising provides like 85 percent of our revenue. It’s still a huge, huge, huge driver. It’s a huge source of revenue. It’s going to be probably for a while. But I think our survival — and when I say survival I’m not talking about the newspaper, I’m talking about our ability to do journalism — I think we’ll have to shift to a different model. And I think that model is that the user will have to pay for the content that he or she consumes.

I don’t think that the cat is out of the bag. I think that the record industry sort of proved that, the music industry sort of proved that you can change people’s behavior. Napster, in the mid-1990s, everyone thought that would just sort of kill everything, and they put those people in jail, put them out of business, and now people pay for music. They do it differently — they don’t buy albums anymore, they buy singles, but they still pay a lot of money for music.

So I think there’s still hope for us, that we can sort of reverse this trend. As somebody said, I think the worst decision that was made by the owners of newspapers was to sort of be stampeded into giving away their content for free. But it doesn’t mean that it’s over.

In terms of public or nonprofit subsidization, I think it’s still an open question. We’re sort of like still the nascent stages of that. I stood on the advisory board of ProPublica, and I think that it’s a really interesting experiment. We’ve published some of their stories. I think they do good work. But they look more like old media than new media. I think that’s important to acknowledge.

I also think it’s really sort of hard assess what the future’s going to be like, because the people who work for ProPublica are some of the best old media print journalists ever. And so that whole thing about a firewall between the people who pay for the news operation and the people who gather the news operation is really scrupulously adhered to. …

Second question is about the internet. Is what we see on the internet from sources other than mainstream media really journalism? I will say, yeah, it is. It’s a different kind of journalism. But, when we put together our newspaper, it’s a menu of things. While I would not necessarily describe everything that’s being done by bloggers as journalism, I think it’s content generation. And it’s interesting content. Sometimes it does lead to stories in mainstream media.

And I might add that bloggers have existed since the beginning of newspapers; they wrote letters to the editor. … There’s always them, when you write a story, somebody out there who knows a lot about a little. They know a lot. And they can finds things you left out of a story, they can find things you got wrong. So bloggers don’t bother me. I don’t have any problem with blogging. But what will bloggers do and cable commentators do? They’ll just do what they’ve been doing. And hopefully they’ll do it a little bit better.

But here’s the big distinction. And you can deride corporate journalism if you want to. But the thing about corporate journalism is that you have a support structure to do tough things. That’s my lawyer, okay? I mean, I pay him a lot of money to open doors, to stop people from trying to prevent us from publishing stories. And the question is, what’s the structure an independent blogger has? What happens when you’re trying to write a really tough story, and they say, you know, I’m going to sue your butt off? I’m going to take your house, I’m going to take your car, I’m going to take everything? Does that journalism get done? Well, it’s much more likely with the sort of support structure that we have — corporate journalism — that we can. …

What do we need to do to keep the public service component of newspapers alive? We need money. You know, what I always say is, a free press ain’t free. It costs a lot of money to do journalism that matters.

And to your point, that newspapers or journalism has supported the status quo, I vigorously disagree with that. I think that newspapers and journalism is about challenging the status quo. It always has been. …

We’re not entering a post-journalism era. We are entering a post-fact era, where facts aren’t really that important to a lot of people. And I don’t mean that they don’t care about facts, they just care about the facts that agree with their position. And there’s this really interesting book that’s out that’s called… True Enough. And it talks about sort of the belief society, where people actually won’t let in information that challenges things that they believe, and only accept information that sort of supports their point. … So we’re in a post-fact era, and I think we run the risk of getting in really deep trouble by only letting in stuff that we agree with.

I think that one of the things that sort of contributes to a vigorous democracy is finding out about things that challenge your assumptions. That make you question what you believe. And I worry about the silo mentality that seems to be developing in this post-fact society. …

I will say this about the Sotomayor quote. … The day after the story came out, when Newt Gingrich accused her of being a racist, we read the speech. We read the speech — we do have time to do good journalism. We read the speech, and we actually wrote a story that said that’s out of context. Here is what she said. Here is what she meant. Here’s what she said before, here’s what she said after. And that’s really what journalism’s about. Journalism is about the business of verification. And we as a society can’t afford to lose that.

During the questions I offered one final push (and this is where I’ll leave things here):

One big issue that we’re talking about here is this idea of impartiality or disinterestedness, versus partisanship. … I think that, as a goal, disinterestedness is completely wrong. If you’re disinterested, that just means that you’re lazy and you don’t care about the story. What you ought to be is passionately interested in obtaining the truth.

So it’s not about being disinterested versus being partisan. It’s about, are you looking for the truth, or not? And I totally agree with Greg Moore that we do need some larger media enterprises with these checks and balances, with good editors. Because there are a lot of bloggers who just don’t have the discipline to write good stuff. …

That doesn’t mean that a large organization is overcoming this partisanship. I’ve seen some what I consider overtly partisan “news” stories in the pages of the Denver Post. … You’re not going to escape the problem by having big media versus little media. The difference is, is the individual reporter going to go after the facts.

So I’m overtly partisan. I mean, that’s why I do journalism, because I’m a political activist. I’m an advocacy journalist. I’m oriented toward free markets and individual rights. That’s my thing. So, for instance, I did a lot of original research into corporate welfare in Colorado. …

Instead of having a distinction of disinterestedness versus partisanship, I would like to make another distinction, which is the straight, easy, fact-based news… versus more of the analysis, the integration of the facts. Now, with that integration of the facts, that’s a lot harder, and that’s where we get into a lot more disagreement. So that’s why I love reading Colorado Independent, Westword (some writers at Westword tend to have sort of a left-wing bent), but I love reading these publications because they look up good facts, and that’s useful to me. I mean, a fact’s a fact, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat, right winger, left winger.

I’d like to briefly address the Sotomayor issue, just because that illustrates what we’re talking about. So, if you tend to lean toward the left, and you’re reading a publication that tends to lean toward the left, and it says that a quote by Sotomayor is out of context, it’s like, “Yes, we’re all right, and everybody who’s beating up Sotomayor is wrong.” But, you know what, I read that speech too… I’ve done a detailed analysis of that speech on my web page. … And the fact is that she is basically a judicial subjectivist. That’s what she is, and she repeats the point over and over again, in many different ways. So the broader point is not out of context. …

So one of the complaints is we filter the facts according to our perception. But a lot of people saying this, and beating up the other side, are doing the exact same thing, right? So it’s a mirror that we need to hold up to ourselves too. … Whether we’re partisans overtly or unnamed partisans, I think that that’s very very important.