Reactions to the Town Hall meeting on journalism

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If there was a consensus at the end of the Chicago Journalism Town Hall Sunday, it's that journalism, in some fashion, will always be with us.  However, something -- God knows exactly what -- is either slouching or bounding toward Bethlehem to be born. 

After the meeting I asked various people from the audience to email me with their thoughts. Several did.

Dave Glowacz, who runs the Web site mrradio.org:

"Best technology moment: When panelist Eric Zorn outed a skeptical twitterer in the audience.

"Most interesting revelation: There exist in Chicago businesses that support on-line journalism thru advertising, and make millions of dollars.Favorite belief reinforced: Geoff Dougherty seems one of the best things
happening to local public-interest journalism.

"Biggest non-surprise: Ken Davis does as superb a job moderating a town-hall meeting as he does a radio talk show.

"Biggest 'doh': When the meeting began I wrote, 'John Callaway starts dozing immediately'" Good thing I didn't twitter that!" (Callaway possibly had more to say than anyone else on the panel, beginning with his pronouncement that we should all assume newspapers are dead and it's entirely possible Chicago will have no daily newspaper a year from now.)

Chad Rubel, managing editor, buzzflash.com:

"I'm not one of the young people in the crowd, but I cringed every time when an older person said, 'Newspapers are giving it away for free.' They aren't giving it away for free. Their Internet sites promote the newspaper with very little overhead. Newspapers' problem isn't the Web sites; they aren't utilizing the ad space well on those Web sites.

"Newspapers complain about how they 'don't make money' from their Web sites. That shames their own employees who sell ad time on the Web sites. Newspapers should be making lots more money with their Web sites but they don't seem to know how.

"Newspapers are in the journalism business, and quite frankly, they are doing a lousy job of it. The reason we have a lot of Web sites is that consumers have discovered that the news from corporate-owned Web sites may be 'true,' but far from a complete picture of what is really going on. When newspapers had a virtual monopoly on information, they succeeded. Now they don't have that stranglehold, and they are panicking as a result.

"It was suggested in the forum that both Chicago newspapers could die. They might. But a new and different newspaper would rise from the ashes, giving Chicagoans what the Tribune and Sun-Times refused to do. Newspapers have to start doing what every other media form does: hustle and work hard. If they do so smartly, they will stick around. If not, something else will take its place."

Cara Jepsen, freelance writer:

"It seemed like journalists were trying to figure out how to be businesspeople and save a dying industry, which they are ill-equipped to do (this includes the young ones with the online-only publications).

"I do think that John Callaway got to the heart of the matter when he said that the problem is stealing. Online-only sites steal content. But sites like the Huffington Post also steal work by not paying their writers (which means that these aspiring - or despairing - writers are also part of the problem).

"But writers have always been treated shabbily, haven't they? As a freelancer, I often bumped into the attitude that publications, especially mainstream ones, were doing me a favor by publishing my work. And God forbid you ask the raise. There was always the sense that someone else willing to do it for less.

"That said, not being paid at all is far worse. I was asked at its inception to write for the Beachwood Reporter. When I found out the pay (zero), I said no; I'll keep posting on my own blog.

"Nowadays, writing is free - so no one wants to pay for it. It's almost like it's seen as a hobby, or something to do on the side. Until that changes, all of the out-of-work journalists may want to look into a second career - or dust off that old novel-in-progress."

Leah Pietrusiak, freelance writer and former newspaper editor:

"It's the 'geeks' who have been successful in finding a way around the pay factors in general, when it's come to music etc... they could bring this industry down, or save it. It's the geeks who will find a way around or through the wall; or who will help invent it, slap on the wheels, hop on the horse and bring the new generation in with them. That's why it's so important to be in cahoots, all of us; not necessarily the older and younger, but the old media and the new media.

"I think that the Kachingle model is unique in keeping the [news] flow going.... Would I pay for content? Sure. We'll have to, it looks like, to some extent--and bloggers will have to as well, in order to keep their sites running as they are. It has to be fun though, and challenging in terms of intellect; and also, how do you inspire a group mentality in the publishing world, that by nature is competitive. I think the forum at least started nipping at the toes of that...

"But for a minute during the forum, there was this atmosphere of 'us vs them,' the people who--with a quick cut and paste--can read and link to a story that maybe they have no idea that it took perhaps months maybe even years, to piece together on the other side; yet the bloggers seem to have some insights--or at least some optimism--as how to better make a free site somewhat profitable, which could help the whole industry.

"Here's a Forbes article I happened upon, about investors when it comes to this game of monetization. Maybe news site will have to become that much more interactive; give people another reason to come to the site, to stay on the site, so advertisers/investors will see a larger incentive to spend money there. When a site writes about a band, why not have three of their songs posted so people can listen, kind of like MySpace? And there could even be the option to buy the songs, with a fraction of the sale going to the website.

"There are a ton of possibilities; publishers will just have to make it fun; and that doesn't mean that the journalism part goes away; that's of course which will bring the widest demographic in, and keep them coming back. Have you seen what Popular Mechanics is doing with their website in terms of advertising? The blue links move you to something actually newsworthy, and the green links--usually some related random word--are a link to an advertisement. The Pop Mechanics site is like a multimedia circus, in a good way, lots of points of entry, video, pictures, flashing ads--but the pages also take longer to load because of that. Which makes one point made during the forum even more poignant: that with the advent of this medium transition, we need to make sure that Internet connections are as robust and widespread as the newspaper boxes of old.

"And if that kind of forward-thinking way to bring in advertising dollars isn't enough, you have to put a value on something.... or else people will not take the time to understand really where journalists are coming from in terms of the amount of work, the hours that you could never possibly log, spent carefully observing, meditating on your next move to get that next connection or tip, sometimes just hanging around so that you're there when what you feel like is going to happen actually does, and you swoop in and bring home the kill.

"I kind of like that hunters/gatherers metaphor. The investigative, skilled journalists are the hunters; but in order for a community as a whole to succeed, there still need the folks holding down the homestead, sowing the public's interest in news day-to-day with sometimes seemingly fluff posts, and riffs on daily news etc--the gatherers, aka, bloggers. And then when the good stuff comes in, they work to distribute it, so that everyone gets a taste, everyone gets fed in a way."

James Merriner, author and former Sun-Times political writer:

"I was disappointed to see some hostility between the Young Turks and the Old Farts. I don't think the Young Turks understood, or the Old Farts adequately explained, the time and money required actually to cover the news--as opposed to aggregating it and commenting on it. Take the city and county buildings, state and federal courts, the federal building, that's a minumum of five people just to cover the beats, and you haven't even started to think about enterprise or investigations yet."

Dawn Reiss, freelance reporter, writer, and editor, and president of the Chicago Headline Club

"The years of being a traditional print or broadcast reporter are dead. It's about being a mobile journalist... I now use my flip camera and contact sources over Facebook – including some neurosurgeons - who respond faster on there than their cell phones. I've also learned how to write for the web by repetitively including key words to optimize my stories and help search engine spiders find my articles online.

"It's about trying something different and thinking creatively. Information needs to be accessible. People still want to know what is going on, but they want that information to be given to them in an easier-to-use format. What about an I-Pass format where you set up automatic deduction every time you go to a news website? If a news consumer doesn't have to think about paying, but is automatically charged, readers will become accustomed to the change and media outlets will start making a profit. When cable television was started, nay sayers said no one would pay for it. The same was said for music clips, until iTunes began dominating the industry.

"Online news content needs to be clearer, cleaner and easier to experience. Readers expect and deserve a better presentation when they go to a media website....The general public, for the most part, still turns to traditional news sources because of their ethical standards that help vet information. They trust that source, as long as the information is accurate, informative and interesting. As a reader, I want the total multimedia experience. I want to read the story, see the photos and watch the video. I want to be able to do that all on my cell phone, so I'm just one click away from being on top of everything."

Alex Yablon, Reader intern:

"I wish my comment had been a lot more focused [he spoke from the floor]. What I meant by the Pravda thing [a model he suggested] was not totally just a joke.... This may sound like the stuff of an undergraduate reading Marx for the first time, but as the fundamental axioms upon which the many parent companies operated fall away beneath their feet, I don't see how journalists can expect to recreate the professional environment of 5-10 years ago, or whenever it was that newspapers were still obscenely lucrative. That seemed to be the true goal of many of the people on the panel, as much as they talked about their belief that the old ways were dead. The American and global economy needs to drastically reshape itself, not scramble to reclaim past glory. Journalists are not special or particularly victimized in this regard.

"That said, I was disappointed that Barbara Iverson 's mention of L3C's [a new form of for-profit/nonprofit corporate hybrid] didn't gain more traction in the discussion. I don't know if a primary news producer like the Trib can operate on the model of social enterprise, but for smaller/online outlets this is worthy of more consideration that it's getting. The straight non-profit model seems untenable on a wide scale as possible funders already find themselves in dire circumstances, profoundly reducing funding for the next fiscal year, especially for new projects. What would they do if the entire news establishment started asking for handouts? L3C's, however, seem encouraging. Organizations that do generate their own revenue stream and are not completely dependent on grants or wealthy donors may be able to develop the sort of independence and institutional strength needed for good publications. If these same publications also avoided the huge profit margins of older news outlets, they might find themselves freed of the corporate entanglements that are strangling still-functional papers with debt. Hedge fund types will look past news for investment opportunities with higher returns, and news will be the better for it."

Update: Link to more responses.

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