Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Uncertain Future of Journalism

By Sam Levin
Tue, Jun 30, 2009 at 5:20 PM

Last night, Bay Area journalists got together at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club for a panel discussion on the approaching death of newspapers and the uncertain future for news media and journalism at large.

The panel - which included Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein and UC Berkeley professor Lowell Bergman, along with founders of rising media outlets Spot.Us and Kachingle - debated a range of issues, including whether newsprint has actually gone to the grave, potential alternative models for financing the media, how reporters can best capitalize on the Twitter-speed flow of information, and the role of the public in so-called citizen journalism.

Bronstein challenged the notion that newspapers are dead but did agree that the traditional financing model of 80 percent advertising, 20 percent circulation revenue is out the window. The future, he said, is not so "black-and-white," and there are ways the print paper may survive, though the future is uncertain.

Bergman cited a "brighter future," arguing that this new wave of online technology will wipe out news organizations in a Darwinian manner, killing those that were "generally speaking, all stenography." At the same time, he warned against the current "dangerous period of transition."

Kara Andrade from Spot.Us and Cynthia Typaldos of Kachingle both argued that the future of journalism must involve capitalizing on the public's interest in generating content. Spot.Us is a web site that calls upon users to fund investigative reporting on stories that they are interested in - so that the ideas that generate the most financial support actually come to fruition. Kachingle is a site that requires a $5 subscription fee, tracks a user's viewing patterns of blogs and news sites, and then appropriately spreads the $5 to the sites they most frequently visit.

Andrade said that the discussion of the death of newspapers is "confusing the packaging with the content. Is Styrofoam dead?" The solution, she argued, lies in telling the stories people want to hear. She cited a crime story that generated $1,000 in funding just 48 hours after it was suggested.

Audience members and some of the other panelists, however, questioned the role of the public to decide what is newsworthy and what isn't. Bronstein argued that there is a way to compromise. He told a story of an outdoors blogger who posted his anger about MUNI was not giving a 25-cent discount that it advertised for riders leaving the ballpark. Bronstein saw this blog, and with his established name, called MUNI and asked why they were not following through. Eventually, after two calls, MUNI made the necessary correction. The story is one of citizen journalists and established news organizations symbolically uniting and accomplishing the true goal of journalism to effect change, Bronstein said.

Next, the panelists struggled to answer the question of how news organizations can be financed without conflicts of interest. Bronstein said that the suggestion of using bailout money to fund newspapers was absurd, considering the extensive government coverage and the danger of restrictions. Bergman, in a small attack on Bronstein, said that the Hearst Corporation owning the Chron has led to some fairly obvious situations of conflict of interest, arguing that any type of financing can be risky. The idea of newspapers as nonprofits was also raised, though Bergman warned against potential restrictions due to private funding.

One thing that all four panelists agreed on is that journalism has never been, and all the more so will never be, a way to make money. Bronstein said, "This has never been a business you go into to make money." With 20,000 journalists having lost their jobs, there is an upside, Bronstein said. "Panic can be a great motivator."


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