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"Journalism and the New Media Media Ecology: Who Will Pay the Messengers?"

Preserving Local Journalism

What follows is an honest attempt to document a two-day conference at Yale Law School, "Journalism and the New Media Ecology: Who Will Pay the Messenger?" The reporter is Bill Densmore of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. As with a similar in-the-moment report from a gathering at Harvard University two weeks ago, I make no warranty about the accuracy of direct quotes -- captured on the fly -- but make a promise to have supplied appropriate context as best as possible. The sessions are being videotaped. Consult that source for the final history of this event.

Related links:

This afernoon's first session is broken into two pieces to address "preserving local journalism." The first segment is painting the dimensions of the callenge, and the second segment proposing possible solutions. "Domension" panelists includien Paul Starr, of Princeton University, Steven Wildman, of Michigan State Univesity and Lisa George of Hunter College. "Solutions" panelists include Peter Shane, executive director of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities and Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.

Paul Starr -- Worries that the loss of major newspapers will diminish the role of the watchdog. Without it, the political system will become more entrenched and non-responsive. He worries about what Robert Reich calls: "The succession of the affluent" from their bedroom-type communities. "Without a public, how do you have political accountability, how do you have an accountable government."

New Jersey suffers a chronic news deficit because it is sandwiched between Philadelphia and New York -- its two great cities lie outside of its borders. Citizens learn little about Jersey in coverage skewed to New York and Pennsylvania. The state's newspapers used to compensate, but are now in free fall, shells of what they formerly are. The 45 reporters who used to coverage the state house is down to 15 and the two biggest papers -- the Trenton and Newark papers -- have merged their coverage.

Starr: An unbelievably hard problem

Starr: A public that is not informed is "a shaky basis for the idea of popular government." There are efforts to start up a statewide public radio network for New Jersey, and a web news operation that covers the state. Starr is helping with these. "But there is unbelievably hard problem. There is rot at the basis of American democracy and we have only begun to confront it."

Steven Wildman of Michigan state covered deep research he's done on local newspaper markets and news coverage. I'll try to get or link to his slides. One finding -- fewer and fewer local newspaper markets enjoy timely coverage of public meetings of key town boards.

George: Hunter College -- Economics of newspaper markets

Next Lisa George from Hunter College talks about the economics of newspaper markets.

A consequence of the first copy cost -- larger cities had better papers with higher readership. And the first-copy costs limit the number of papers that can survive in any market. It means that groups with minority tastes may be poorly served.

Technology opens up the market for a supply of niche and other content. Journalists compete with academics, non-profits and citizens; newspapers compete with TV, radio and blogs. It lowers the cost of production.

One of the results of high distribution costs is we have in the United States a lot of smaller papers isolated by the fact that it is hard to print and deliver information. So when you lower those costs we can get to a more preference-based marketplace -- differentiations by viewpoint rather than the delivery limits of geography. One result: Is more voices and more opposing views. People may start to choose the best rather than the most local -- it creates a market for superstars. So there will be fewer journalists and those that remain will receive much higher pay. They won't necessarily be built or made by the paper.

George next works to understand what resources will fund which aspects of journalism.

"The bundling piece will mostly be funded by advertisers in the future," she says. "This distinguishing the bundling value from the content value is central."

What you read affects what you do. It affectds consumers, producers and voters -- and it also has an effect on politicians, who worry about exposure -- that disciplines them.

Summary of trends and predictions: Fewer papers, more viewpoint differentiation, declining readership for local, expanding freelance market for journalism, especially for analysis, commentary and expertise, market for superstars.

Peter Shane on possible solutions

He served as executive director of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. There were a couple of things central to the report. A key premise: Geography matters. Our democracy is organized geographically, so a breakdown in covering it that way is a problem. Another key premise: It is not just about news but about information more broadly. The key findings of the Knight report, released Oct. 20, 2009, revolve around the availability of information, the creation of capacity and access, and civic engagement.

There were three conversations in three venues need to go on together:

  • Local media ecology makes available relevant information needed to govern. That's what journalism is about.
  • Second discussion is about access to skills, resources, archives etc.
  • Third conversations are about civic engagement. If people don't see reasons to engage, what's the info's power?

He says it is more important to talk about creating journalism institutions rather than saving them. He wants to say something more bluntly than the report said.

"Private markets for general local news, or access to the willing local readers of local news I don't think will ever generate sufficient resources to do what needs to be done in a democracy." There will be successful businessses in this area, but there won't be enough of them and those that exist will underinvest. Local news is a "non-rivalrous good" so it will have free rider problems. Shane's apparent inference -- there will have to be some public funding mechanism if we want enough journalism

Shane: Hopes that: "local journalism becomes part of the DNA at university education at all levels. It is something students want to do, it will develop their civic literacy and will develop into something that will help them in their careers."

  • What are the information needs of communities in a democracy?
  • Are they being met?
  • If not, what shall we do about it?

Paul Bass: Why do we think that the news is dying?

Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent, says the news isn't dying. There is more news being covered in New Haven than ever before. "All these reporters who are writing about the death of news are sitting in these media funeral parlors."

The Texas Tribune just started up last week.

"It's happening, and it is great and it is fun."

He went from raising $80K a year to $450K a year. He just started covering things. Like the board of education and the zoning board. "Not only were the people not going to the board of ed, but neither was the board of ed. And we wrote about it. ... pretty soon teachers, school reformers and kids were writing in to comment about our coverage. Pretty soon a school-reform initiative was launched. "We just started showing up as reporters . . . and then we would let the readers tell us to the next level in the story."

It's a journalism-driven community. "We've got people leaving the Hartford Courant to come work with us because they are excited about the kind of reporting that we are doing."

The reporters left at the New Haven Register are very good reporters. And they watch. "And it gets us to do better reporting, that' scome back. The local TV station has developed their website very well. I think it's a great period of creative destruction."

They are trying out all sorts of new revenue models. They are sharing office space and are trying to get funding to create a bi-lingual newsroom and share it with a Spanish-language newspaper. They are getting legal notices. "There are more people even under the radar who are going to come up and do it better . . . it's just the dawn of that age. So just come on board and don't fret!"

A rejoinder from Paul Starr

Starr to Bass: That's great -- but your money is coming from foundations, not from that community. Is it sustainable?

Bass: Their biggest funder is the New Haven Community Foundation. Why is money from the Knight Foundation better or worse than money from General Motors, via advertising, for selling cars? Isn't 50 or 100 comments a day from people involved in the community more important than news organizations that put Paris Hilton on the cover.

Lisa George: What are people willing to pay for, vs. what we might wish they could pay for. "I think the penny-per-click, the advertising, the bundling model is what will get us closest to that." Even when local content is free, people don't pick it up, they don't read it. "Just subsidizing it more takes away from things that we value."

The old media firms don't want the penny per click, they want to keep their bundles. When talking about printed material, we're talking about a limited demographic.

Shane: One of the conclusions of the Knight Commission is that we don't have a very good way of describing what we mean by local information quality. Let's assume information produces community vitality and accountable government. If you ask people: "Would you like to see government behave a little more accountably because there are going to be journalists writing about it? the are going to say Yes!

Upscale myth about online audience?

Paul Bass: Disagrees with the notion that the online audience is upscale. When there was a shooting in a poor neighborhood, in public-housing projects, the kids are on it reading it. The new site just started in the Naugatuck Valley, where the daily paper left 17 years ago -- they are all online in this former factory town. "I think it is a little bit of a myth," that the online audience is upscale.

Jeff Jarvis: "Paul: Bless you, not only what you do every day but also about the self-selection of the people who always come into these rooms. Do you see crisis or opportunity? It is a critical, critical question, because it leaves to the reations that ones take. It leads to the assumption that you have to save something. It goes to the idea of desparate moves like government support for speech ... we assume that news is what it was, it should be what it is ... I think we have a lot to learn from Paul's experience, and from (Debby Galant's) BaristaNet."

He had a conference on Wednesday at City University of New York, where he teaches. "There were 60 Debbie Galants in the room, trying to be like her. "We need to nuture more Paul Bass', more Debbie Galants and if the old guys don't catch up, I don't personally give a shit."

Paul Starr: There is a growing portion of people who get no news, and the increase has been most sharp in the young-adult area. There is a trend in this direction in most of the rich democracies -- there is less regular following of the news among young. Media consumption forms in youth. "If that is true, if it continues to be true it suggests there will be a shrinking core of news readers in the future." But there may be a core. "Out there in the larger society, something has died, a lot of people have apparently dropped out ... as a democrat, I care about that."

Paul Bass: I would trace that decline to before the Internet and that I think newspapers dug their own grave. The younger people are more online. The Nation was revived because of the Internet.

Lisa George: When you ask or measure is overall news consumption higher or lower. The translation of that is people listening to traditional media sources online. "It is a different question, are people engaged in traditional media online or are they engaged in media broadly online."

QUESTION: Maggie Mulvihill, co-founded the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. She says it has been hard to get folks in Boston to invest in students doing investigative reporting. What is Paul's experience in working with citizen journalists.

He says he is a little old school about journalism needing to be done other than by citizens. His experience is that he has not had the best luck getting lots of people to be journalists. "I think it still has to start with professional journalism," Bass says. "I think it still has to start with the old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism and it has to be at the beginning of the process rather than the end." If you look at Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, St. Louis Beacon, those are professional journalists driving it; you have hard of those sites in those cities. "I'm still an old fashioned snob about journalism."

Pay at the New Haven Independent

Former New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse raises to probe the economic basis of the New Haven Indepent. She asks Paul Bass what are the salaries like at his local online news community non-profit. Bass says he is paid $55,000 a year -- "which is more than I have ever made in my life." He says the other salaries range up to and around $45,000 a year. He says there are about nine staffers. "I can tell you one thing, we do have health insurance," he says.