I meant to comment on the Town Hall earlier, but then all of a sudden already a week passed. First, I want to say that I was glad to be able to attend, and thanks go to organizer Ken Davis who was nice enough to squeeze me in after it looked like their RSVP list was full.
It’s tough to organize such an event and try to be balanced and fair with regard to representation. To begin with, the task of discussing local journalism in Chicago while the two major daily papers are on the ropes is not so simple. If you’re looking to get out of the echo chamber you want to be sure to include voices critical of the mainstream journalism status quo, but at the same time you risk alienating a lot of receptive participants if you don’t also include folks from inside that mainstream. Of course, since many observers pin responsibility for the newspaper’s decline on the internet, you need to have some new media newsies there, too.
Faced with that challenge I think the organizers did a fine job, including both current newspaper reporters and columnists along with bloggers and critical voices. Somebody with an axe to grind can certainly complain about a particular person or institution not being included. But I’d challenge anyone to come up with better representation across the local journalism spectrum in Chicago… nevermind actualy getting them to show up.
Lasting some three hours, it would be difficult for me to effectively summarize the Town Hall in a readable way. Instead I’ll reflect on what stands out to me most one week later.
Without a doubt the friction between new media and old media was present and palpable throughout the event. I wouldn’t say that it ever got hostile, but a level of mutual suspicion could be sensed. The beef of the mainstream, primarily print, journalists echoed a frequent complaint which was summed in one word by Chicago news veteran John Callaway: “theft.” That was his answer to a question of how newspapers might achieve a level of success, audience and revenue online similar to that achieved by the Huffington Post.
At many times the contention that news websites and blogs still rely heavily on the work of the traditional press was brought up. Sometimes it was during a discussion of the negative effects of major newspapers going out of business, noting that such an occurrence would leave bloggers without something to comment on (and, presumably, steal). Other times it was expressed with more bitterness, accusing web-only enterprises of failing to produce much original content, therefore not showing promise as the new guard.
The feelings weren’t much warmer from the other side, as those running web-only news sites, like ChiTown Daily’s Geoff Dougherty cited how profiteering by big newspaper owners began squeezing the papers to death before online was serious competition. Dougherty also forced the issue of original content, given that ChiTown Daily pays both experienced professional journalists and new citizen journalists to do original reporting for the site.
Another strong current was the issue of making money online, with traditional journalists questioning if online ads, in particular, would ever be sufficient to sustain a fully online newspaper. That question met with two different answers. Some panelists, like Community Media Workshop’s Thom Clark and In These Times’ Salim Muwakkil, pointed out that making a profit at reporting news isn’t guaranteed by the first amendment and has contributed significantly to the current crisis. Other commenters from the audience argued that there’s plenty of money to be made with online ads. Sachin Agarwal, CEO of Dawdle.com, was there as an advertiser who buys ads on many Chicago-based websites. Brad Flora of the social news site Windy Citizen invited Agarwal and also spoke up in defense of the vitality of online advertising.
In the end my conclusion is that the tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if there’s a silver lining to the cloud of the current crisis it’s that it is forcing people to have the conversation not just about what the future of local journalism will be, but why it’s important in the first place, and what it should look like. Without rejecting the model of the daily commercial newspaper, at this moment it’s important to reflect critically on what features we wish to retain and what, perhaps, we can do without.
I forget who made the remark, but this line of thinking causes us to question why we have to stories about local government bundled with sudoku puzzles. Just because that’s the way the daily newspaper ended up doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be.
Of course there are bigger questions at stake, regarding the place of objectivity and so-called advocacy journalism; about who gets to be a reporter, and whether future reporters will be able to make a living wage doing journalism. And of course, we still have the issue of who determines what gets reported and how.
I can’t say that I’m ready to dance on the graves of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. For all of my criticism for how their owners have done business, and for the gaps present in their coverage of social and economic issues, they nevertheless contribute a great deal of valuable original reportage that would be immediately missed if they went out of business. Yet, these two papers cannot and should not be the only game in town. One of the major underlying problems is the extent to which we all are over reliant upon too few sources of news. And, yes, we probably would not be here if consolidation across media, encouraged by regulation and legislation, had not occurred on such a grand scale in the last quarter century.
The revolution in online news gathering really got off the ground almost ten years ago with the first Indymedia center covering the Battle in Seattle. The notion of uncensored user-contributed news, including photos, sound and video, was radical, forward-thinking and utterly pragmatic. So much so, that a decade on we take it for granted. I’d guess that most folks working online news sites and blogs are largely unaware of this lineage.
The same struggles that catalyzed independent and community media will continue to spur change in online journalism. Money is always an issue, but profit doesn’t have to be.
I left the Town Hall feeling unexpectedly stimulated and hopeful. Despite the overemphasis on making a profit online and the tensions between old media and new, I was heartened that such an open and frank discussion was happening in the first place. I doubt that the same broad mix of folks could have been brought together in the same way five or ten years ago. It’s a sign of both how severe the economic environment is, how much owners like Tribune have run their papers into the ground, and also how traditional journalism can ignore or minimize online efforts only at its own peril.