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The topic was “Will Newspapers Survive?” and the panelists were Chicago journalists who had for the most part passed through the first three stages of dying -- shock, grasping, and grief -- and could lucidly consider the fourth stage, letting go.
Their collective answer -- no they won’t survive, not as we know them now.
The Chicago Headline Club and the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association sponsored the well-attended discussion, which was held a few days ago in the auditorium of the law firm Mayer Brown. We’d all come to hear from working stiffs, rather than the “media consultants” who dine out on the trade’s miseries. These panelists understand that as journalism tries to reinvent itself, their own careers are on the line.
"We’re here because the business model is broken,” said Bill Adee, who’s in charge of innovations at the Tribune, where Sam Zell has brought in a crew from Clear Channel Communications to think the biggest thoughts. “Hopefully they won’t ask journalists to fix it.”
Eileen Brown, who has the innovations job at the Daily Herald, took exception. She gets her best ideas from journalists, she said, as well as some that are “cockamamie.” She has “to beg and plead the business side” to try new things, but the newsroom is “passionate. They won’t want the Titanic to sink.”
Moderator Dirk Johnson, an NIU journalism professor who used to cover Chicago for the New York Times, wondered at the outset, “How do we keep the fabled romance that gave us The Front Page from turning to the last page,” and the discussion that followed was tinged with an odd sort of forward-looking nostalgia. In the Front Page era, every social and economic class was served by its own daily, which cost pennies. Today isn’t that different, with an infinite array of Web sites, all free and all sure to flatter somebody's notion of the world and how it works. The most sentimental of the panelists, Monroe Anderson of EbonyJet, recalled how much fun the newspaper business still was when he broke in at the Tribune in 1974, but when he complained that everything became “very corporate, very structured’ and “they’re looking to the bottom line,” he was describing a middle period now ending, when metro dailies resembled the local gas and water works and other utilities, except that they were unregulated and made a lot more money.
Anderson fondly remembered a colorful Tribune editor with an eighth-grade education, the sort of person who would soon become unthinkable in metro newsrooms. When someone in the audience asked the most pointed question of the evening -- young people understand the Internet “intuitively,” so why don’t the papers give them the wheel -- Anderson replied at once, “Because the baby boomers won’t give it up.”
But when Adee patted himself on the back for hiring Luis Arroyave, a marginally qualified kid who’s become a hit as a blogger and soccer writer, Anderson marveled, “That’s how papers used to be, before the suits took over.”
Beyond letting go are healing and serenity, and Tom McNamee, editorial page editor of the Sun-Times, a paper on the brink, seemed OK with all of it. If the papers die, he said, they die. Journalism will survive. He compared the news to popular music: “Even bands like Wilco, nobody's buying the records, they get them free online. So what's going to happen, music is not going to die, people still love music, there will still be bands out there making fantastic music, but they won’t make megafortunes. There's nothing wrong with that. That’s a wonderful thing -- the only people it’s bad for is Wilco. Same thing here. We may not all be making fortunes. Our 30 percent profit days are over. We may not survive. But you know what -- that’s our problem. Not to say that the world’s in crisis because newspapers may not survive in the form that we recognize now.”
The next form is digital, but there are considerations. Jim Slonoff, publisher of The Hinsdalean, brought up one of them, which is that his hyperlocal weekly, which he and a partner started a few years ago, is making money. “The old way still does work,” he said. And Brown put in a good word for the enduring pleasure of passing a Sunday afternoon curled up with the New York Times.
The problem is what she called the “middle ground,” that considerable realm of quotidian national and international stories that can be read just as easily on a computer as in a newspaper -- maybe a lot more easily. Zell’s people had already warned that Tribune Company papers were cutting back their news holes, and McNamee predicted “the most local Tribune since Colonel McCormick.” I sat there thinking what a loss that will be, for just that morning almost every story in the Tribune's front section had been an engaging house-written report on an off-beat but important topic, and if I hadn’t read them in the Tribune I wouldn’t have read them at all because (a) it would never have occurred to me to look for them online, and (b) if a paper hadn’t commissioned them they’d never have been written.
“Our perceptions now are all driven by what’s coming up in online hits,” mused Mark Brown of the Sun-Times, who’s certain his online audience and the audience for his printed columns are not the same.
Elaine Eileen Brown said, “You still make more money in print than you do online. And so the money -- it’s not a dollar for a dollar, it’s ten cents for a dollar. So it’s this weird transitional phase where you’d love to say ‘OK we’ll move everybody over here,’ but you can’t because you still have to feed the mother ship.”
Tossing sand in the gears of progress, she said, are advertisers who aren’t comfortable advertising online and ad salesmen who “are in the ice age” and much happier selling ads for the paper. Adee pointed out that the “big successes” on the Internet, Web sites such as YouTube, have content that’s 95 percent generated by the public. Content on the Tribune’s site is 97 percent house generated, just 3 percent public -- the comment boards and photos. So his paper isn’t anywhere close to the prominent models of online success, and given that the point of the Tribune is to provide professional journalism, never will be. On the other hand, Adee told the crowd that RedEye is the fastest growing paper in the country, tailored for and given away to an audience that can’t imagine paying for news. He also said, “People want what journalists do more than ever. They want it in different forms. They can accept it in amateur form, semipro form, or professional journalism."
There wasn’t much said to hearten the young professionals in the audience. One of them asked about freelance opportunities and Anderson said to talk to Slonoff. “He’s expanding and the Tribune’s shrinking.”
For video highlights of the panel discussion, click here.