Saving journalism (and killing the press)

I’m in Philly at the Annenberg School of Communication for the Norg unconference: A remarkable, perhaps historic, gathering of newspaper people and bloggers starting a conversation about saving news. Will Bunch, a columnist on the Daily News and blogger wrote a post four or five months ago about newspapers reaching their nadir. Karl Martino, a blogger who started PhillyFuture, a gaggle of local bloggers, responded and together with colleages — Wendy Warren, an editor at the Daily News; Susie Madrak of Suburban Guerilla and with hosting from Annenberg — they put together this day.

I say this is the day that the war ends. This isn’t journalism against bloggers anymore. It never was, really. This is journalists and bloggers together in favor of news.

Will Bunch says that in the time since he wrote his post, newspapers are finally showing visible change: newspapers trying not to think of themselves as newspapers but as news organizations (hence “norg”). He says that “newspaper people had staked their identity on being newspaper people.” The conversations at papers on what to do about shrinkage were all about print circulation. “People as recently as a year ago were living in a dreamworld about how to salvage” what they do. He says that in the first 20 years of his career, it’s amazing how little changed. “It was a very static world for the last 50 years…. It was hard for us to imagine a world where newspapers weren’t the dominant news source…

Karl Martino comes up with the wiser metaphor for media’s world change. We always say that TV didn’t kill radio; ergo, newspapers must be safe. Karl, instead, sees this as LPs moving to CDs to MP3s. One m medium — paper — may, indeed, go away. “The music remains. The music doesn’t go away.”

The goal of the day up on the screen: “All we have to do is create the future of local news in Philadelphia. We are the right people to make this happen. The ideas we develop are the essential ideas.”

This is an unconference — no speakers, the agenda in the hands of everyone — because, Warren says, “Whoever’s in the conversation is the right person to have in the conversation.”

And so it begins, with introductions:

Dan Rubin, the newspapers’ daily blogger here (and a good reporter and nice guy) says that he goes out in the morning to pick up his papers and when he returns home his kids already know the news from one.

Fred Mann, who started and runs for the papers (we started working together, lo, 12 years ago when I was at Advance) says he just returned from San Jose, where he saw his Knight Ridder colleagues. If this were a vlog, you’d see eyes roll and hear a sigh.

The folks from Phillyblog — which is really a forum — say that they have 6,000 members who report the news. If there has been a shooting, they say, you’ll learn about it immediately from “the people who heard the bullets.”

Duncan Black, aka Atrios (sans laptop), says he’s here because he loves local news and we need to find the way and the economic model to tell the story of the city better.

I’m not giving you the intros to nearly all the people; I don’t type that fast. But it’s a wonderful assemblage of people who are here because they care about news.

Carl Lavin, deputy ME of the Inquirer, says that he works with more than 100 journalists covering the suburbs but that there are hundreds of thousands of people in those suburbs who know more and the question is how to collaborate. He says that newspapers have been talking about being cross-platform for years but — and I’m paraphrasing — that they didn’t get it or mean it. But Bunch’s coining of “norg” has made a change, he said. Lavin also brings up the other question that always comes up: how to make money to support this.

Madrak, a journalist-turned-blogger, says that newspaper people make a mistake when they think that bloggers hate newspapers. They don’t. Bloggers love newspapes; they just get disappointed when they aren’t everthing they can be. (I corrected this quote later with Madrak’s guidance.)

Two students talk about wanting to do this for a living but they are concerned about whether they will be able to. I’d say it’s not clear whether they can get a job. It’s also not clear whether they can make a living. But I do believe they can be paid.

Jen Musser-Metz, who works at (and with whom I used to work way back at the beginnings of says that she works to bring the Inquirer newsroom into this century.

Someone who works with the local Indymedia (can’t see his nametag) says his concern is how to fund investigative journalism. The business question comes up from all sides.

Amy Webb of Dragonfire says that she left newspapers because she couldn’t stand editors. That, I recall, is why Nick Denton and I said in an IM long ago, in my blog infancy, said we liked blogs: “no editors.”

: The question at an unconference is: what’s the agenda? The group contributes agenda proposals, going up on a wiki to be edited. A blob of those, all unfairly summarized:

Webb says that online should be run by the technologists more than the editors. Rubin asks what would happen in Philly if a left-wing power bought one paper and a right-wing power the other (note to myself: I need to post about why I think that could be a good thing; see London). I say that the starting point is to define what local news can and should be: what are we saving and what can we do now we couldn’t do before? It’s not about saving newspaper or — pardon me — saving newsrooms. It’s about growing news. Sandy Shea of the Daily News asks what democracy requires as an agenda item. Another question, Madrak says, is that newspapers can be skewed by serving the wrong public. The shareholder question comes up: Are shareholders the constituency of newspapers? Is that in competition with “our constitutional duty,” Madrak asks. This always comes up. But in this room, to my delight, people immediately say that the issue is how to make money. Duncan Black says that newspapers have squandered the opportunity to make money with audience online. The question comes up: what is the relationship of citizen journalism and professional journalism. This will be the meat of it and the discussion revs up here, too fast to Boswell. Diversity is raised as an issue; this room is mostly white. The digital divide is raised and a student says the web must be treated as a utility that goes out to all people (see Philly’s ubiquitous wi-fi project). Warren brings up the issue of bloggers not having the legal protection; see this. Fred Mann, online newspaper company exec, raises the question of whether newspaper companies should be public. I say that the issue isn’t stockholders; the issue is management. A guy from an upstart website that can’t afford investigative journalism speaks up; I say that perhaps one day his company can go public and raise the money to do that. It’s not the stock market — or the market pressure — that is the problem. It’s what you do about that, I believe. Next debate: Is a la carte news bad for us and for democracy? Should there be editors who says what we ought to know? Are editors the best to do that? Duncan Black says this is also a matter of style: We present news dully. Journalism, he says, is not just conventional print journalism; it is Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus and the New York Post (his examples). There is much discussion about the Domenech affair at and why the Post felt it needed to take him over, why other papers have not covered this story, and more. I raise this to the meta level: What are the ethics of news and journalism?

Wendy Warren starts a lightning round: What do we want a norg to be? Answers from the room: A filter…. credibility… interactivity… tangibility (i.e. print, free, to reach people not online)…. multiplatform…. media literacy (not just consumption but creation)…. it has a voice… it gives voice to the public…. relevant… compelling…. agenda-setting…. empowering…. face-to-face… distributed…. continuous…. 24-hour… smarter at promotion…. ethical… economically viable…. cover government… investigative…. diverse…. raise revenue… share revenue with the edge…. support journalism legally… adaptive…. innovative… risk-taking…. resiliant…. able to try and fail and try again….

A young intern at the Daily News gets the last point and she wonders why the heck reporters don’t have blogs to talk with people directly, to engage, to be transparent. Listen to the future talking.

: LATER: What would a meeting be without breakout sessions? So we broke out and talked in groups about the business and platforms; the content and culture; the responsibility, roughly stated. This will be difficult to summarize; I’ll add a link to the wiki when it’s up.

A few interesting ideas that have come up:

The idea of a “norg” as a coop. I think of that as a coop of news gatherers and sharers (e.g., the coop sells your ads and promotes you but you still own what you do: your reporting and content). Another notion is a coop of the public (which, of course, is a public company… which is where this started).

Another idea is that a “norg” can fulfill some of the functions of a wire service (e.g., covering the obvious stuff so everybody doesn’t have to cover it — as CityNews used to do in Chicago… and also aggregating coverage, as the Associate Press does).

I also think it’s important to get out of the idea that there is one company and one business model. There will be many entities, each with its own different business models and ownership.

I was surprised to hear some people, including the paid journalists, saying that they need to break out of the goal of winning Pulitzers. Win the public.

: Underlying this in this discussion in this city with these people is the tension about the sale of Philadelphia Newspapers. This week, bids are due. Who buys — or doesn’t — have a gigantic impact on the possibilities. If it is Gannett or Singleton, one PNI person said, they will do what those companies do. If others buy, the future is more open – for good or bad, I suppose.

: So what the hell is this thing? Well, it starts as a conversation. That conversation will continue in blog posts here and there and, we hope, everywhere and in a forum at It will start to crystalize in a wiki that expresses the goals, lessons, and possibilities of this. Then it becomes a message to the industry, broadly defined, perhaps with discussion at conferences and such. It could be a think tank that tries to reinvent news. It could be a laboratory in Philadelphia and its incumbent players or with new players or elsewhere. It could be a new future for news.

: LATER: Here’s Dan Rubin’s rendition. Here‘s Sedley Log’s. Here from The West End.
Here‘s Wendy Warren’s compilation of what went up on the white boards and our next steps on a blog; wiki to follow. Karl Martino wakes up and reports (on the day of his baby’s christening, by the way). Photos here: The Fab Four, and ow.