Posts about optimism

Cock-eyed optimism spreads

The AP conducts a bunch of interviews with European media people and finds what I had found anecdotally: that all in all, they are more optimistic about — and, by inference, better prepared for — the future. More cock-eyed optimism. Note also that Le Monde says its online revenue pushed it to profitability “entirely thanks to online services making up for print losses.” (via Paid Content).

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.


The future of newspapers? Asking the past:

The latest breakfast thrown by the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and The New Yorker asked about the future of newspapers and sought answers from Gary Pruitt, head of McClatchy, and Dean Baquet, former editor of the LA Times and now head of the DC bureau for the NY Times. How could I resist? Here’s live-to-tape blogging posted soon after the event:

Ken Auletta: “The past decade has not been kind to newspapers.” He introduces Pruitt, saying that last year he was venerated for buying papers and “this year he’s less venerated” for selling them. And then he asks Pruitt whether, if he were the owner of the Tribune Company, he would have fired Baquet. Pruitt equivocates. “I would like to believe we would have never gotten to that point.” He hopes that the publisher and the editor can work together. They didn’t hug.

Baquet says he’s not opposed to cutting in newspapers. “I’m a realist.” He says that by the time he had his confrontation with Tribune they’d already cut 25 percent of the staff and killed two sections. He thinks he already proved he’s a “team player.” Note that the talk so far is about the internal organization. That’s how newspapers think and talk.

Pruitt: “Fortunately I’m not at the Tribune company. They’re still waiting for Godot. And apparently Sam Zell is Godot.”

Baquet says his biggest problem at Tribune was that “panic had set in… There was a lack of rational conversation about the future. There was a lack of intelligent discourse about what newspapers have to offer that no one else has to offer…. You couldn’t say. ‘What can we do that our new competitors can’t do?’… My biggest fear that there’s this panic and that the panic isn’t justified. I buy that the industry is changing… But nobody’s talking about the good stuff.” He cites newspaper readership, including online, at a high. He says the panic is stopping the conversation about “how to protect these institutions.” Again, note, the focus is on the institution as an institution. I think it’s a looser world than that; I think it’s more about networks and confederations.

Pruitt agrees that there is a sense of panic. He says you look at the figures and “the inevitable conclusion is that newspapers are dead.” He says the “saving grace for newspapers is that they are not proliferating in number.” He brags that their lead over the next outlet, usually a TV station, has grown. That’s like being one deck up on the Titanic; you seem to be sinking slower. He brags newspapers are the “last mass medium,” not something I’m sure is worth boasting about. So what he’s saying is that newspapers are still monopolies. Well, as newspapers, they are; no one wants to start another one. In news, though, that monopoly is what has died. Dead and buried. Gone. Over.

Auletta asks about Tribune losing its lead in digital innovation (they were an early investor in AOL). Baquet says that he doesn’t want to engage in “Tribune bashing” and that “everybody moved to slow” in the industry as circulation declined and technology rose. He says that newsrooms were guilty of that. “Like every reporter and editor, it felt like something that I didn’t understand and something that would slow me down” from journalism. “And I was wrong.” The more I hear him, the more I do understand why staffs like him.

Baquet says that if were a multibillionnaire, he would take on Tribune Company. “I cannot imagine there is not a great future for those papers.” He says he hopes that people who invest in newspapers don’t look for quarterly returns and growth “because that’s just not going to happen now.” He says he hopes people want to own newspapers because their long-term growth prospects are good “and there’s another reason to own it, because they do something terrific.”

After Pruitt, too, gives a soliloquy to the prospects of newspapers, Auletta says that’s fine but young people are not reading newspapers. Baquet says they will care about news when they’re older. I say they care about news today, just not in the form in which it is controlled and served by newspapers.

Baquet says that if he ran a media magazine, he’d assign a reporter to do a story on how much of the spiraling decline of newspapers was “as a result of self-inflicted wounds.” He says that “the money that went into real innovation… is all gone.” He defines innovation as starting new sections online. He says some of the loss of circulation is “because we give people less.”

Pruitt says that he’s confident at their ability to build audiences but his concern is whether there is a business model that has advertising supporting journalism. I think the question is first how the journalism is done; there are new was that bring new business models. This discussion does, indeed, go hand-in-hand.

But mind you, here’s the head of the third-largest newspaper company who just gambled his company’s fortune on getting deeper into newspapers admitting that he doesn’t know what the business model is. I find that troubling.

Pruitt says that McClatchy bought Knight Ridder at the start of the newspaper downturn (uh, I’d say that began long ago; it just accelerated like an SOB lately) and “so our timing was terrible.” He says the company still performed better than it would have without Knight Ridder.

Baquet offers an eloquent tribute to the long-term public-service and business wisdom of the Newhouses — Si is here — supporting the Times-Picayune even as the business life of the city collapsed.

Note again how they continue to talk about newspapers as institutions and less about the larger landscape of news and their possible role in it.

It’s question time and so I get the mic, of course, and say that I’m about to fly to the University of Texas to give a spiel on why I’m an optimist about journalism — journalism and news, that is. I want to know why they are but first tell them why I am: because there are more ways than ever to gather and share news and if we cooperate with the public, journalism can spreader deeper into the tentacles of society, taking the light of openness with it. Their responses:

Pruitt: He says he’s optimistic because there is a growing “hunger and thirst for knowledge.” He says “there are more ways to get out to people and engage them in Web 2.0…. It’s in many ways a golden age of journalism.” But he still turns around: “The dark clou, at least for many media companies, is divining the business model to support the journalistic efforts. I’m optimistic about that as well but ti actually regard it as two different issues.” Again, I say they must be intertwined.

Baquet: “I’m optimistic first because more people read us…. I’m opt also because I think that newspapers get better when they have to change as long as they do it rationally…. This is not something we’ve not done before.” He says the transformation of the NY Times from a stodgy two-section paper came at the last industry crisis. “Newspapers get better as they change so long as they hold onto their bedrock principles.”

He says that the web brings “amazing possibilities for writing and storytelling.” If he were a critic starting out, he’d be excited about the ability to not just describe but to show a dance. “I think all that’s exciting. It’s a great opportunity for journalists if we embrace it, which I think we are.”

He adds: “The newspapers that survive what we’re going to go through are going to be considerably better, more innovative.”

Victor Navasky, now of the Columbia Journalism Review, says that “where journalism is subordinate to the state, the news gets distorted for political reasons, and when journalism is subordinate to the market, news gets distorted for economic reasons.” And so he asks about nonprofit: “the third sector as a business model for journalism.”

Pruitt says that “holds a lot of promise. I certainly support the idea of looking more broadly for different models… The more diversity out there the better.” But he says the best insurance for independence and quality is success in the marketplace. I agree.

David Lieberman of USA Today asks the O question: the future of objectivity. Baquet says that “I’m not sure objectivity is possible anyway, I like ‘balance’ better. And i think there are times when the concept of objectivity can make newspaper writing stilted… The explosion of the web is going to demand that newspapers be even more balanced… The explosion of the web, if you take newspaper web sites out of it, is really an explosion of opinion…. There’s going to be a desire for a voice that’s as straight as possible. Does that mean that newspapers should not call it as they see it?…. ”

Pruitt says the internet not so much an explosion of opinion but an explosion of porn. I think he meant it as a punch line.

He says that if newspapers go with “the more modern style” they are going to lose market. “People are looking for a once-a-day stop that is professionally selected and edited…. I think we would lose audience if we abandoned that.”

If I owned McClatchy stock, I’d be picking up the phone right now.

Asked about the guest editing kerfuffle at the LA Times, Baquet says he gets the value, the idea of guest editing for “the opinion side of newspapers is the most threatened.” So that side “is the most drawn to that kind of stuff.” But he says he wouldn’t have done it because it will draw controversy and you don’t know what baggage the person who comes into the section would bring. Lloyd Grove, ex of the NY Daily News and now, by his description, “freelancer,” asks Baquet about the impact of this morality play at the paper. Baquet says that he hasn’t followed it much because, three weeks into his new job, he’s trying not to focus on the last place.

“Overall, the morale of the LA Times is in the tank,” Baquet says. “I like the new editor of the LA Times, he’s a friend. He’s in a very difficult position…. They’re waiting for the sale. They know, given what happened with me, that there’s some cuts of some size headed their way, rolling down the hill. And then if you throw in the e angst that exists in newspapers it’s a tumultuous time at the newspaper…. It’s a paper that’s struggling through an amazingly tumultuous time and this is symptomatic of it.”