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Four optimists, one cock-eyed

Here are my full notes for my talk at the University of Texas International Symposium on Online Journalism about why I am an optimist about journalism and news. I never stick to the script (in fact, I usually work off outlines) but I wanted to get my thoughts composed and so I wrote out my spiel. Full text with Keynote slides here.

I’ll do you a big favor and skip to the end. Here, I argue, is where things can come out:

And so the result is more journalism:
More people gathering and sharing news and information.
More coverage deeper into our communities.
Better journalism if we see ourselves as educators and enablers who make that happen.
More sunshine on government.
More journalistic enterprises.
More people supported in them (though perhaps without car services and expense accounts).
A more sustainable industry.
More independence (don’t even get me started about the folly of regulating media ownership).
In the end, if we think like inventors, innovators, and cockeyed optimists, we end up with….
More reporting.

: Responding to my initial call for help with the talk, one of the leading lights of newspapers — oh, if only we had a thousand points of light like this — John Robinson, editdor of the News & Record, offered three reasons why he’s an optimist about news:

1. The reporters are better…. The professionals are smarter and quicker, and more fluid and more diverse than any in the 30+ years I’ve been in the business. They are innovative and open to change. We’re in good hands. The widespread entry of non-pros is a splendid development, bring new eyes to old and new topics. When I was editorial page editor, it was a daunting challenge to write on complicated issues day after day, knowing that there were dozens of people in the community who knew the topic better than I. Now they have access to a megaphone to inform those of us who care. How can that be anything be a valuable complement to democracy?

2. The tools are better. You are reading me here. I can read voices as diverse as Jarvis, whom I’ve never met but corresponded with, to Gate City, whom I know and have spoken with. I can watch video from The Troublemaker or create my own. When newspapers can move into the world of radio and television with audio and video — and radio, television and “citizens” can do that and enter the world of the written word — how can that not be good for news? All it takes is a compelling story.

3. The stories are better. Well, perhaps not better, but with so many more people reporting and such simple and advanced tools, there are more to be told. I have 50 reporters on the streets. Add in countless bloggers, news aggregators and YouTubers, and more light is shining brightly in dark places. More watchdogs are unleashed. The stories are out there in abundance. All you have to do is talk to someone or record it yourself. The hunger for news is insatiable, but the stories must be compelling. It is the boring stuff that no one wants. (We continue to address that challenge.) There’s always going to be a place for storytellers. We all just need to go to where the audience is.

I love newspapers. I love the way they feel. I love their mobility. I love their serendipity. I love the seriousness of their journalists. But that’s just my morning habit. Now I love the ability to read English writers from around the world. I love watching video, whether it is news or it is the latest from Jib-Jab. I love writing here, at 7:54 p.m. while OSU and Georgetown are playing ball. I love talking to people who visit here, but hate the chore of deleting spam.

Cock-eyed optimist about the future of news? Oh, hell, yes. It’s a wonderful time to be a journalist. If you can’t serve the public and contribute to the health of the democracy in this environment, you might as well go back to typewriters, hot type and daguerreotype.

Most eloquent.

: Now here are Steve Baker’s reasons to want to be a journalist today:

1) In stable industries, most people have to mount the hierarchy, step by step, hat in hand. When journalism was “healthy,” people in their 20s often weren’t allowed to cover big stories (unless bullets were flying) or to express their voice. That hierarchy is crumbling, which means loads of opportunities for the young, especially because…

2) Young journalists are more likely to master new techniques for gathering and spreading the news.

3) You don’t have to worry nearly as much about getting clips. When I started, it was a really big deal to get published. It was the difference between handing a prospective boss a sheath of articles or a pile of typewritten pages. And, because of the rigid hierarchy, if you were lucky enough to get clips in your early 20s, most of them were dull-as-dishwater one-column reports on school board meetings. Now anyone can publish, podcast, etc. That makes a huge difference.

4) The reporting field is leveled. In the old days, powerful reporters had good sources inside government and industry. Others had second- and third-tier sources, or none at all. Now there’s all kinds of information available for those with the nose to find it. Sources still matter. But there’s plenty of other interesting stuff circulating that lends itself to analysis, and even breaking news.

5) The world’s more interesting, and news is more important and relevant to our lives than ever.

6) Take a course in statistics.

(The last one is a plug for Steve’s book on mathematics.)

: And then (via Robert Niles) there’s this speech by the outgoing head of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Tacoma News-Tribune Editor Dave Zeeck, showing just why we need antidotes of optimism like those above. This is what American newspaper editors say to each other. This is the state of headupassism still alive in too many quarters

I’m told the blogosphere is going to eat our lunch. Well, the blogosphere, for the most part, spends its infinitely expanding gas talking about what we – newspapers – write, not what some blogger reported. If newspapers disappeared tomorrow it would be like pulling the fuel rods from a nuclear reactor: the lights would go out and the blogosphere wouldn’t produce a single BTU of intellectual heat.

It’s the same with the Internet in general. When someone tells me they get their news from the Internet, I want to say: “Oh yeah? So, tell me again, how many reporters does Yahoo have at City Hall? How many correspondents from Google are risking their lives in Iraq?

People working for dot.coms go to jail for stock fraud or backdating options, not for disclosing important truths and protecting their confidential source?

News on the Internet – news from real communities, new about real governments and real wars – comes from flesh-and-blood reporters. And they’re dispatched from our newsrooms, not the soulless zero-gravity of the Internet. . . .

The challenges we face are great. But the talents, the standards and the creativity of the people in our newsrooms – and of America’s editors – can surmount any challenge.

I believe we’re like post-war Vietnam.

I believe our best days are still ahead.

He loves the smell of napalm and newsprint in the morning. Time for the reeducation camp.

: LATER: Add another optimist. Here’s John Siegenthaler, aged 80, saying that the best is yet to come.

: The Newspaper Association of America is trying its best to be optimistic. They just bragged that, according to Nielsen and as reported by Reuters, “The number of unique visitors per month to U.S. newspaper Web sites rose 15 percent to 57.3 million, or a third of all Internet users, in the second half of 2006…” And they just came out with new ads arguing that newspapers are multimedia.