This is one of a series of posts by me and Mark Matassa about the decline of the newspaper business and what that means for Seattle journalism. Mark kicked off the conversation at his blog, M&M.
I came away from "Journalism on the Brink? Can Digital Save It?" — last night's panel on the future of news — kind of depressed. Sponsored by the Online News Association and the University of Washington Department of Communication, the panel was understandably hopeful and starry-eyed about the future of journalism. But I left Kane Hall with the icky feeling that we are, in fact, losing something important with the demise of daily newspapers.
To be sure, it's an exciting time. Panelist Cory Bergman, a seasoned TV-grown guy who has been on the forefront of Web dissemination of news and innovation, is running MyBallard.com in the Seattle neighborhood where he lives while at the same time tackling the challenge of finding new business models for news for MSNBC.com on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. We're lucky he's around.
John Cook, a co-founding writer for TechFlash, the newish Seattle Web site allied with the Puget Sound Business Journal, continues to pioneer plugged-in niche journalism after a career in newspaper newsrooms.
Though I don't regard her as a reporter in the classic sense, Monica Guzman has been playing an important role at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a well-recognized face brokering news and buzz on The Big Blog. She's an advocate of journalists getting out from behind their bylines and engaging a public that today demands to know who's covering the news.
Cory Tolbert Haik, director of online content at The Seattle Times, knows a thing or two about how news can be covered on the Web, having moved here from New Orleans. She also sees in the traffic metrics what readers really value in online news — it happens, of course, to be the stuff that isn't really news — and uses that knowledge (though presumably not that knowledge alone) to guide her decisions as to what to highlight online.
These are smart people actively at work on effecting needed change in the news business. So why did this panel depress me?
It depressed me because the fifth panel member, Ross Reynolds, was the only one to sound warnings about where all this might take us. Reynolds is a longtime radio journalist and host of The Conversation talk show on public KUOW-FM (94.9) in Seattle. While some of the other panelists regarded the wall between news and advertising as an inconvenience or unnecessarily rigid, given the crisis surrounding the newspaper business model, Reynolds expressed concern about ensuring journalism can be practiced without influence from money, whether it's ad dollars or philanthropic dollars. He alone seemed to embrace the value of detachment journalism — so uncool in this day of wearing your opinion around your neck in the name of righteous forthrightness.
Someone from the audience of 141 people suggested that it might be time to revisit the actual definition of journalism before we reshape the way it's disseminated. Here's a definition I've tried to live by: News is what people want and ought to know. The flavor of most of the talk last night about the future of news reflected not so much the "ought." It was all about the Web's unprecedented ability to deliver information people "want." With the demise of the self-contained, omnibus printed newspaper, we're less likely to have a chance encounter with stuff we ought to know, or opinions we ought to hear. We'll only have time to zoom in on what we want to know, what we want to hear.
This is not to discount the awesome potential of a fully realized World Wide Web of information and expression. Long before most of these panel members came on the scene, I was pushing for innovation at a newspaper myself. But can't we find a way also to preserve the ethical framework and standards of verification that have served us well over the past 50 years or so?
Mark, you asked what I thought about this flurry of four public events in Seattle at which experts are discussing the future of journalism in light of the likely cessation of inked publication of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I think they are of varying value in getting the conversation going, but so far I've witnessed either celebration of change or grieving, but nothing that really assures me everything will be OK. Perhaps that will come tonight at the No News Is Bad News event.
I think my notion of quality journalism will survive just fine at the national and neighborhood levels, but I'm concerned about City Hall and Olympia. Writing for The New Republic, Paul Starr examines in detail how mainstream newspapers became cash cows powerful enough to wrangle sacred cows. His is the best overview I've read to date about the news crisis and its implications. It's called, "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)." Concludes Starr:
News coverage is not all that newspapers have given us. They have lent the public a powerful means of leverage over the state, and this leverage is now at risk. If we take seriously the notion of newspapers as a fourth estate or a fourth branch of government, the end of the age of newspapers implies a change in our political system itself. Newspapers have helped to control corrupt tendencies in both government and business. If we are to avoid a new era of corruption, we are going to have to summon that power in other ways. Our new technologies do not retire our old responsibilities.
You're right, the title of tonight's panel isn't quite right, though it's a stroke of marketing genius. Instead of "No News Is Bad News," it should be "Less News Is Bad News." We will have less and different news, and in many ways that's natural and good. But I do worry that a craft rooted in carefully evolved values will be lost in the process.