Whither news

At the Shorenstein Center at Harvard for a 20th anniversary session on the future of news, Prof. Frederick Schauer begins by talking about news as a public good like symphonies, parks, museums, universities — things that are needed but for which there may not be a commercial model of support. I hope we are not going to start throwing in the towel on the support of journalism via its value in the marketplace. I’m not willing to do that, not by a long shot.

And now we are hearing from consultant Scott Anthony, who’s heading up the Newspaper Next project, about which I have been less than enthusiastic. He’s going through their standard spiel (don” talk about readers, talk about consumers…. arrrgggh, no we are customers… as Rebecca MacKinnon, sitting next to me, says). So I’ll keep the snark gun holstered. But suffice it to say, this is a watery challenge to this group.

He added something new to the spiel: video of the participants talking about how wonderful the process is. That’s a shameless plug. But worse, I think, it indicates their blinders. My worst fear about this thing is that it is false comfort to newspaper execs: See, we’re changing. But not enough, not nearly. Bill Marimow, ex-head of NPR news and now its ombudsman (as of this morning’s news), argues that what bloggers write is not subjected to the same scrutiny as his reporters’ work; I’d say we are all subjectd to the same scrutiny: that of the public.

I got up and said just what you could expect; so did Anthony. He said we agree that this isn’t about consumers; it is collaborative. I asked him to rate the change undertaken by the organizations in the project (as they graded the industry in the report). He said the organizations were at 30 percent of the goal before the project and that the project moved them 10-15 percent. I think we likely disagree on the definition of 100 percent. I think the requirement for change is quite radical.

: Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, gets a hand at lunch leading off with this: “I am here to today to discuss Americans as citizens rather than as consumers.”

After a tribute to the value of education — broad, not specialized education — he says, “We never teach people what to ask. And that brings me to journalism.”

He talks about the program that Carnegie and Knight funded for five journalism schools, saying that he is “not impressed with the names of the institutions; I am impressed with the content. . . You, deans of journalism, you, scholars, have a civic duty to educate our public.”

So is that the role of the journalist — to educate the public? Is the journalist qualified to do that?

Gregorian says the journalist is the intermediary and interpreter “between society and knowledge” and that the journlist is “the guardian of our democracy. . . . Yo are the ones who keep democracy alive. Economic institutions won’t.” He says that news media outlets need to be made invulnerable to economic interests. He says “we don’t encourage people to be in the truth business. We encourage people to be in the profit business.”

I am afraid we continue to try to insulate and separate the old ways of journalism from the market — from the public they are trying to serve. That is terribly dangerous.

Gregorian actually suggests making news organizations should be subject to maximum profit rates! Good lord, it that dangerous.

: Next, a panel on “traditional” news organizations. Rick Kaplan, ex-head of MSNBC and CNN, says that the public views news and information as different and values information higher. John Carroll, ex-editor of the the LA Times, says that 80-90 percent of the reporting in the country is done by reporters at mainstream organizations; don’t know how he calculates that.

I’m sorry that we’re separating “traditional” and “new” news. That, itself, is much of the problem today.

And we continue the discussion about profit margins as an evil and shareholders as the handmaidens. Carroll says that Tribune Company should have reduced its margin from 20 to 10 percent and then he would have had another $75 million to spend on journalism and make the paper bigger. Or $75 million to waste. See Michael Kinsley on the 15 editorialists. This is a hymn Carroll has been singing for sometime.

A journalist-turned-mutual-fund-manager says that what Wall Street celebrates and demand is not protecting the past but building for the future. Wall Street celebrated Google’s investment in YouTube.

Eric Alterman asks what’s wrong with the Economist model: an elitist model that charges more for a smaller audience. Apart from the irony of liberal elitism, I think he has a point: don’t try to serve everyone; be what you should be and make that work. (Yes, Alterman and I agree.)

The person I’m really liking on the panel is Robin Sproul, Washington bureau chief of ABC News, who talks about putting the World News up online in the afternoon so it can be downloaded as a wonderful thing. She pushes the panel to make news two-way. Marvin Kalb challenges that, asking her to prove that “reaching out” to the people would improve news — clearly, he’s dubious — and not sure how to do it. I’m ready to go into afib back here in the blogging gallery.

: Next came the panel I was on and having had red wine in the meantime, I’ll skip recounting it. Suffice it to say that we new-media folks were more positive about the future of news. Arianna Huffington called the argument about old and new media obsolete: “It’s like the old barroom argument: Ginger vs. Maryann. Let’s have a three-way.”

[Here's Rebecca MacKinnon's take. And Dave Winer joins the conversation from the other coast, via blog, looking at what comes next.]

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  • http://www.sociallyresponsiblebusinessforum.com John Schneider

    Kudos to Vartan Gregorian. Using the term “consumers” as a catch-all term for a collection of individuals is dehumanizing and, frankly, lazy. In the context of a conversation about journalism and newspapers, one should use the term citizen. Those of us in media are fully aware of what advertising means to a media outlet – we don’t need to be reminded of it every second of the day.

  • http://www.placeblogger.com Lisa Williams

    D***. This is right next to me, but I didn’t hear about it in time. Thanks for blogging about it.

  • Anonymous

    “Gregorian says the journalist is the intermediary and interpreter “between society and knowledge” and that the journlist is “the guardian of our democracy. . . . Yo are the ones who keep democracy alive. Economic institutions won’t.””"

    Yeah, right. So if that’s the case, I would find fewer New York Daily News reporters covering the Mets than covering events involving the New York City public schools.

    And of course, Page Six and the NYT boldface column, that’s all about democracy, right? And the funnies and crossword.

    That’s part of the problem, news organizations AREN’T the ones keeping democracy alive. And maybe they haven’t done so for awhile. And maybe it’s time to stop thinking that they do.

  • http://eclectchap.blogspot.com/ button

    *Marvin Kalb challenges that, asking her to prove that “reaching out” to the people would improve news*

    Kalb didn’t hear about how Brian Ross at ABC recented benefited from e-mail feedback to his initial entry posted about the Foley affair?

    It’s ironic that Kalb would say this just now.

  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    Maybe Marvin Kalb should “prove” that by not reaching out to people he can sustain trust in the news.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joe Hunkins

    >>news organizations AREN’T the ones keeping democracy alive. And maybe they haven’t done so for awhile

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com Joe Hunkins

    “News organizations”, even at their best, reflect a highly commercialized, narrow focus on events of interest.
    Even politics is covered by almost all major outlets as scandal and personalities more than issues and substance. The stories of the century, often in the developing world and rooted in the life and death struggles facing *hundreds of millions* are eclipsed by Michael Jackson and Madonna.
    The journalistic high road was left far in the distance decades ago when Ed Murrows were replaced by Geraldos and Bill O’Reillys.
    Modern “journalism” … isn’t journalism. It’s a wasteland of superficiality and celebrity ruled by ratings, circulation, and money.
    The internet may not make things better, but it can’t get much worse.

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