[Panel] The Future of Newsrooms

You’ve got a staff of about 200. Your task: to create a newsroom for the 21st century. Where do you put your staff? Where do you invest your resources? How many reporters do you need? What about editors, copy-editors, photographers, programmers, web producers, and technical support? How much do you focus on your website and how much do you invest in the printed paper? Or do you even have a printed paper? And, for that matter, do you even have a physical newsroom?

That’s the puzzle facing San Jose Mercury News business reporter Chris O’Brien every day. He is part of the steering committee which is reexamining how to rebuild his newspaper’s newsroom. And following yesterday’s layoff announcement at the Mercury News, O’Brien’s task is more urgent today than ever. Which made him the perfect panelist for last night’s panel at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism on “The Future of Newsrooms: New opportunities, collateral damage, and affects on journalists in the digital era.” O’Brien was accompanied by Jeanne Carstensen, Salon.com’s Managing Editor; Louis Freedberg, California Media Project Director and a former editorialist at the San Francisco Chronicle; and Luther Jackson, San Jose Newspaper Guild Executive Officer. Here was the blurb:

Everyone is talking about the future of the newsroom in this new digital world where young people get their news from YouTube and Facebook, and traditional print journalists have seen hundreds of their brethren laid off or bought out. Join us for a discussion of how these changes are affecting journalists. What can media workers’ unions do? Should journalists hurry up and learn how to blog and podcast before it’s too late?

I’m not sure who was moderating the panel, but I assume he was from the school of journalism. His first question was right on, but I don’t think he took enough time to explain himself. Is the news industry suffering from a problem related to technology, he asked, or a problem related to the consumers of news? In other words, do newspapers need to figure out more innovative ways to deliver their content or might it be that Americans are no longer interested in the newspaper article as a way of finding out about their community and the world around them?

Chris O’Brien said the Mercury News performed an anonymous marketing survey which asked residents of San Jose how they found information about their community. Top answer: Google. Second place: word of mouth.

Both of those answers spell bad news for big papers like The San Francisco Chronicle, which is allegedly losing over $1 million every week. When you search Google for a landmark or current event in your local community there is just as good of a chance that you’ll wind up at a blog as a mainstream media website. Similarly, if someone has a 10 minute break at work to either catch up on their friends’ and neighbors’ blogs or their local newspaper’s website, most office workers will choose their friends. We are, after all, social creatures.

In blunt honesty, the panel was disappointing. The panelists focused more on their backgrounds and pet projects than the question at hand, which was supposed to be “What is the future of the newsroom?”. Much more interesting than the panel itself was the conversation that followed when Cyrus, Dave, Laura, Revaz, and I grabbed some beer at Triple Rock.

Dave and Cyrus are practically doppelgängers. Both grew up in Los Angeles, went to undergrad at UC Berkeley and journalism school at Columbia. They are both too young, too smart, and too ambitious. Yet, interestingly, after graduating from this country’s best journalism school, their paths diverged. Cyrus went the traditional journalism route and these days he files stories on a regular basis for NPR, BBC, the Economist, Slate, Wired, and others. Dave, on the other hand, is involved in numerous projects which aim to shake up traditional models of reporting. They include NewAssignment.net, BeatBlogging.org, CopyCamp.Us, NewsTrust.net, and BrooWaha.

I made the argument that producing professional content on the web will only become sustainable from advertising when ads are embedded in videos and the internet becomes a video-centric medium. Ten cents here and ten cents there from text-based ads will never cover a journalist’s salary. I don’t make that argument with excited anticipation – I can’t stand online video and I can’t stand embedded advertisements, but the reality is, most people don’t like to read and most people are willing to sit through a 10 second advertisement to get to the video they want to see. (Like all those damn BMW commercials I have to sit through to watch the TED talks.)

Cyrus wasn’t convinced. He thinks the product of the traditional journalist – that is, the text article – is here to stay. Cyrus, both as a journalist and as a news junkie, finds worth in the work that journalists do – the researching, the investigating, the phone calls, the filtering of so much information and presenting it in a sensible way. I’m a fan of good journalism myself, but even more so, I’m a fan of hearing directly from the source. So, while I thought that Marco Werman’s interview of Skype’s Sten Tamkivi was interesting, I’m much more interested in reading Tamkivi’s own thoughts.

Because the information available to reporters is now also available to everyone else (thanks internet!), the role of the reporter is more broker of information than investigator. And smart web applications can broker information even better than smart reporters. Just five years ago the Las Vegas Sun would have sent a reporter to the airport to cover the increasing complaints of delayed flights at the airport. Today they build an interactive database-driven map with Flash.

The role of journalists as brokers of information is also exemplified by Dave Winer’s proposal to make MP3 files publicly available of the conference calls between major presidential candidates and reporters at major papers. Why can’t those candidates speak directly to the people? Why do they need to be spun by professional journalists? Unsurprisingly, no MP3s have been released by either the campaign teams nor the mainstream media.

This afternoon I had a little time to kill between lunch with one of the coolest moms I’ve ever met and dinner with an old friend. So I peeked at my RSS aggregator on my iPhone to see what was going on in the world. Lots of headlines about the protests and burning of the US embassy in Belgrade. I started reading the New York Times article written by Bostjan Videmsek and Dan Bilefsky, but got bored quickly. The whole thing could be summed up in one sentence: “Witnesses said that at least 100 people broke into the embassy, which was closed, and burned some of its rooms. One protester ripped the American flag from the facade of the building.”

Then, via Global Voices, I found a post by a 25-year-old in Belgrade whose balcony overlooks where most of the vandalism took place. On that same balcony 17 years ago (when he was just 8-years-old), he saw a man pointing a gun at his father in the street:

I remember those demonstrations because my father was afwully concerned about his new car. At one point, his Russian made Lada was parked right between a cordon of demonstrators and a cordon of policemen. He was desperate. He tried to move the car earlier, but when he approached the parking lot, a fully armed soldier told him to back off at gunpoint. I felt miserable. I was 8 years old, on the balcony, watching my helpless father. This was the first time in my life, that I remember, that I saw him backing away and not trying to argue his case. He was at a fucking gunpoint.

Little did I know how many children would see their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, at gun points in the coming years. I had it good in that decade.

I only talked to a girl who was raped by a dozen men for a week. I only heard of 10.000 people being killed in a day. I only saw hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to understand what happened to them. March demonstrations were a beggining of something it took me 10 years to learn how to cope with.

Today, it happened all over again. Politicians, artists, professors, students were shouting nationalist slogans in the middle of Belgrade. They were completely disregarding human life. They once again showed how territory can be more important than people. They showed how a nation state can be worshiped at the expense of happiness. Then they took it to the streets.

Just copying and pasting the text gives me goosebumps, something which almost never happens when I read the New York Times.

1 Comment

  1. In broad strokes I agree with what you’re saying (thanks for writing this thoughtful post), but I think you’re too pessimistic on the lack of a role for journalism. I do get chills from reading a good feature article, column, or book written (or edited!) by a professional – it’s where I learn almost everything I know about the world. I feel the things we get in blogs are added value, and add texture, color, and more nuance in political perspective, especially on a story like Kosovo.

    I mean, even when we feel the media isn’t taking a strong enough stance on political corruption, peace, etc they are often still reporting on it to some degree or we wouldn’t know enough to complain about it. Sure, there’s no law that says the journalists couldn’t just do that work outside the framework of a traditional newspaper. But apart from the money being nice, it also provides a structure and direction for the coverage – and trust – as the commenter above says.

    Personally, I don’t really trust the NY Times much more than a good blog, I think journalists there are just as human and biased as everyone else (what’s worse some journalists seem to consider themselves such authorities they have a right to decide what’s-what for you). Still, I think good journalism deserves to be put on a pedestal – just like good blogs do. If we can only get newspapers to stop reporting on the exact same stories, in the exact same way, over and over, it would really free up the time and resources to do all things they SHOULD be good at.

    It’s easy to see news wire journalism as the boring bit of journalism, but it’s actually a huge responsibility and skill to provide an up to date narrative of world events that so many different people can go along with. Considering how big and bad they are, I think they are doing fairly well. It keeps us all more or less on the same page around the world – which would be really impossible, if everyone were just zooming around on the internet reading their favorite blogs. “Hello, President Bush.” “Oh hello, Chancellor Merkel.” “How about the Middle East?” “Yeah, how about it, let me just check my RSS reader on my iPhone.” :-)

    Reply

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