Tuesday, September 19
Working journalists, media critics and digital visionaries discuss the ongoing transformation and apparent decline of American newspapers. Topics to be addressed: the aging of the newspaper reader, the emergence of citizens' media and the blogosphere, the fate of local news and the local newspaper, news and information in the networked future.
This is part of a series of forums that ask the question Will Newspapers Survive? Also in the series: News, Information and the Wealth of Networks (Sept. 21), Why Newspapers Matter (Oct. 5).
Series co-sponsor: Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe.
Ellen Foley is editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Previously, she was managing editor for the Philadelphia Daily News, assistant managing editor for features at the Kansas City Star; and was a reporter, assignment editor and copy editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Before that, she held similar positions at the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Detroit News.
Dan Gillmor is the founder and director of the Center for Citizen Media and author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (2004). Previously, Gillmor was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley's daily newspaper, and worked for six years at the Detroit Free Press.
Summary by Marie Thibault
Dan Gillmor: It's an honor to be here to talk about the rise of citizens' media and what I hope will be a vibrant, expanding, and more diverse ecosystem of journalism. I hope newspapers survive – it would be a tragedy if they didn't, because what they do is so important.
This is about democratized media and wide participation because it is open to many people. For example, this computer includes video editing software and almost a whole recording studio. When the Web is added to this mixture, there is powerful access. It's not so much about distributing media but about being able to get access to many different kinds of media.
A fairly fundamental change is that consumers are now producers and vice versa. Also, we now have a read-write Web that allows people to write easily on the Web.
Journalism has been a lecture – we tell you what the news is, you either buy it or you don't. Now it's moving into something like a conversation and the first rule of a conversation is to listen. Journalists have not been the best at this, but when I wrote about technology in Silicon Valley in the mid-90s, I quickly realized that my readers knew more than I did. This isn't a bad thing, it is just an opportunity to do better journalism.
The democratization of access to media means that the audience now has many choices. I was in Hong Kong during the 2000 elections and realized that I was getting a better news report by going online to several different sites than anybody who was watching television in America because I could create my own news report. This is something called the “Daily Me." This sort of information gathering means that it is getting harder to keep secrets. Governments and companies are trying to restrict access, but information has a way of getting out. Newsmakers also have new rules of engagement because they have the same access to the tools we use and hopefully they'll use them to become more transparent.
Traditional media is filled with really smart people who are getting scared enough to do interesting stuff. Newspaper should want to be the “town square” and get everyone involved.
For instance, Le Monde offers its readers blogs and actually puts better ones up on the Web site and even paying some bloggers. The Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, California is including hyperlocal content that is proving to be quite successful. Of course if newspapers don't start doing this, others will. There is a site based in Brattleboro, Vermont that often beats the local paper on things that matter because the local paper is not owned by a company that cares a lot about journalism. The threat that journalists should be thinking most about is not a journalistic threat – it's about money – it's the advertising revenues that are being taken away rapidly by people like craigslist and eBay, which, when you think about it, is the world's largest classified advertising operation. Craig from craigslist is a friend of mine and is quite concerned about what's happening and is really doing what he can to promote good journalism. The online Oh My News in Seoul, South Korea is also fascinating. They have 40,000 citizen journalists around Korea who have agreed to post things there. They have professional editors who edit things that get posted, so it's a hybrid. It's a wonderful experiment and they just opened an Oh My News in Japan and will launch an ambitious project in the US .
Organizations are asking the public what they know about things. This is the canonical image from the London bombings of July last year. This is the one we will always remember, this terrible quality, no production quality whatsoever, taken by a camera phone photo, taken by a guy who would never have thought of himself as a journalist before, but he committed what I'd call an “Act of Random Journalism." But people have done this before. This camera took one of the most famous citizen media images in history – the Kennedy assassination. What I want you to think about is a changed world. There was one guy with a camera shooting the scene. Now it's not one, but a 1,000, all getting images of high-quality and it's all connected to digital networks. That's a big difference. We'd know more now. Imagine if the people on the planes on September 11th had not only been calling other people but had also been sending videos using their cell phones? I'm not sure what this will mean except that it's different and we have to understand it.
The Web 2.0 notion of mashing together things from various sites and services is creating interesting things like the micro-publishing model. Mashup Web sites and videos are something younger generations find very natural. I can't wait to see where it goes.
Of course, we get too much information and we have to find ways of surfacing the most important news if we care about journalism. We're moving from the “Daily Me” to the “Daily Us” and it's an important thing to think about how we'll do it. You have to think about reputation, popularity and authenticity in order to get something interesting, but we're not there yet.
There are some principles that bloggers need to think about. Transparency is not a common thing in either old or new journalism. We are all reporters in our everyday lives about things we care about. Criticism becomes part of the everyday conversation and it will be daunting for the traditional journalist, but media literacy also needs to be brought into the picture by traditional journalists.
Ellen Foley: I'm thrilled to be sitting between two greats of journalism. I'm an editor in the middle of the country and we are very much involved and interested in new media and in what our readers have to say. In the Midwest , we are concerned with being a good neighbor and that translates into our journalism. This may have propelled us ahead of some of the other newspapers you have heard of.
I'm not concerned about the future of newspapers. I'm concerned about the future of journalism. I am sick of hearing from those who aren't in the newspaper world that we don't care about readers. I answer all e-mails from readers.
When I was a cub reporter, there was a notion that we were supposed to tell readers what they need, but that hasn't been the practice for quite a while. It's now our role to share information, offering not only what we think they need but also what they want. So be wary of those who say we don't listen to our readers.
There is now a tension between slow thoughtful technology of newspaper and fast convenient technology of Internet – I have a foot in both worlds. Our paper is ramping up Internet news, but there is a tension between generations. We have a problem of limited resources, but we're going to figure out this new business model. Some interesting new models include Jellyfish.com, a very interesting group that the Wall Street Journal has referred to as the new Google. My newspaper has to work within a budget, but we are working on and being recognized for new media. We hold a vote everyday on our Web site to allow voters to decide what to put on our front page. [Co-panelist Alex Beam laughs, but good naturedly.] Surprisingly, they choose to read heavier stories about the BP pipeline instead of articles about Paris Hilton. Readers are smart; we've known this for a while, and we want and need to listen to them.
Again, the mission of the journalist is to tell the truth. I've been working hard on this with the writers in my newsroom. Jamie Thompson, a pioneer of stem cell research, didn't want to talk to the press for fear of his words being twisted. In order to hear from him, we used a digital tape recorder to get his story in his own words.
Newspapers also have a mission to make a difference. We create a community conversation. In 2004, 81 percent of people in our county voted for president in, about 30 points higher than the average community. Values and controversial issues surface through these conversations, so it will be very sad if the conversation doesn't continue. I don't know how young people will be able to govern themselves without this conversation. I hope that some of the money generated from 21 st century technology goes toward supporting good journalism.
Alex Beam: I apologize for laughing, but I was remembering what I'd read about the wisdom of crowds. When playing chess as an audience against the Soviet chess champions, the readers always picked the obvious move and lost very quickly.
Ellen, what is the penetration of the Wisconsin State Journal within Madison city limits?
Foley: We have about a 30 percent subscription rate and an 83 percent readership level. Readers are sharing newspapers.
Beam: The New York Times has only 1/9 of households in Manhattan, one of the lowest penetrations in the nation though they're read quite widely on a national level. The Boston Globe is owned by the New York Times and it's hard to decide whether to cover national stories or local stories. Tricky position – school bond or Mideast .
The Boston Globe 's Web site was once recognized by Bill Gates as the best in America, but it's a mess now. I think the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have very good Web sites. In addition, the New York Times has something called Times Select, which puts certain pieces behind a pay wall. There isn't anything particularly wrong with our content, but charging readers for access to a column is a hard business model. I actually envy the New York Times. About a year ago, the Boston Globe was prepared to put Red Sox stories behind a pay wall because people all over America care about the Red Sox. I don't know why we shrank from doing it.
Will newspapers survive? I was talking to Ellen Goodman about 15 years ago, and she mocked a movie for saying that “We're going to have fewer readers, but better ones.” I'm something of a skeptic of citizens' media, but I've always been interested in my readers. I steal ideas from them and they've corrected my views. Recently, Yahoo hired a talented video reporter and has turned out some interesting stories, so I congratulate them. But frankly, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark's idea of journalism isn't fantastically interesting. It may be acceptable to hear directly from a stem cell pioneer, but direct unmediated media from a liar is very different from hearing from someone who is academically honest. This is a time of transition and it just seems that we haven't quite balanced the equities of the readers and the professionals.
David Thorburn: Some of the numbers on the newspaper industry imply that in 25 to 30 years, there won't be any people who want to read newspapers. Ellen, could you elaborate on some of the new business models that are emerging?
Foley: A group called Newspaper Next spent a year researching new business models and will soon unveil their findings. About 20 percent of our revenues come from circulation while the other 80 percent comes from the advertising associated with the newspaper and the Web site. For most newspapers, the Web sites are generating about five percent of newspaper revenues while the Sunday papers are responsible for about 95 percent of revenues. The Sunday newspaper cash cow is being milked as newspapers transition into the next era. People who run the newspaper industry are interested in making money, although hopefully that is not their sole interest. Unfortunately, they see the Web as a place to make more money. Their form of “inventory” is just having more stuff online. Credibility of information is going to be newspapers' competitive advantage. We are not paying enough attention to that because we're paying more attention to spaces for advertising. Some business models, like craigslist or Jellyfish.com offer content, but not credibility. We need to keep the cash cow alive as we transfer but I don't know what the new business model will be.
Gillmor: The bad news is that the cash cow is dead. For the last 50 years, newspapers were monopolies that brought in a great deal of money and Wall Street demands an increase in this revenue. Web-based businesses are nimble, hungry, and willing to live on lower margins. Journalism would be a ridiculous distraction for these businesses. These businesses are stealing advertisers, who are our real customers on an economic basis.
Thorburn: So Dan, your message is that the economic basis of newspapers is disappearing. Will newspaper survive that?
Foley: It's don't think it's happening at the pace Dan thinks. Newspapers get it and we're creating content that is Web-only.
Beam: Interestingly, NPR has just had a decrease in listener numbers for the first time in years. Like Sunday newspapers, they can't lose the older generations, because they are the generation that donates the most funding. So, Chicago Public Radio started a another new public radio station. I wish newspapers could do that.
Foley: But we can do that. We have the ink-on-paper technology and we have the Web.
Gilmor: We've already trained people to think that news is free, why not go all the way?
Question: Have you ever thought about using comics to increase revenues?
Foley: We have though about that, but the problem is that it doesn't get everyone in the room paid. When we took the stock listings out of the paper, about 60 people complained. In contrast, when our features editor replaced a puzzle with a Sudoku, we received about 1,000 calls and e-mails in one day. Needless to say, the puzzle was back in place the next day.
I think newspapers should be an entertaining break in the day. While color comics are a great idea, they are really expensive, and even increasing the space for black and white comics means that something from the business or international and national news section will have to go. More space for comics is not currently being considered as a way to increase readership.
Question: I am from Germany and it seems that European newspapers tend to have more educational pieces than American papers. Rather than trying to catch up with what your readers want now, have you considered trying to open their horizons? One upside of Web gathering is that it is useful for getting a variety of views.
Gillmor: Newspapers on the Web need to point outside their own domains more than they do now. If a newspaper sends people away to something good, they'll come back.
Foley: Web site and newspaper readers need to give them what they need. European papers have many different voices from many places, but I think that a sense of community, which is very important to the American newspaper, is lost.
Question: How much will shift from newspapers into virtual media? I don't think that unmediated journalism will ever completely replace traditional journalism because the press brings a certain value beyond what is obtained freely. Could you comment on those two related, but separate points?
Beam: We haven't found the price point for opinion or the mediating experience. There has been amazing unmediated journalism like the video of the tsunami, but we're still floundering. The New York Times puts opinion pieces, which are a combination of attitude and analysis, behind a pay wall, but there's a lot of fear over what we can charge for content.
Thorburn: Times Select members also get access to the New York Times archives, which might be something people are willing to pay for anyway.
Foley: The New York Times family prefers to practice verification, not affirmation, and these pay wall articles are affirmation type pieces. The New York Times opinion writers are relying upon verifiable fact, which some bloggers may not be doing. Newspapers as a physical form are useful for more than information. They are portable and easy to read, but I don't know how long are we going to be interested in the old technology of the newspaper.
Thorburn: Books, a major form of old technology, are still preferred for their ease of use and portability. It may be a long time before this convenience will be found in online newspapers.
Gillmor: I don't know exactly when online newspapers will become flexible and portable, but it will happen eventually.
I'm disturbed by suggestions that bloggers write opinions without using reliable fact. Some bloggers use more facts than traditional media writers. Of course, these bloggers have expertise in a narrower field, but they write for lay people, not other experts.
Question: I only buy the Boston Globe on Sundays and I don't go to newspapers for truth. It would be better if journalists stopped focusing on truth and strived to be more accurate and verifiable.
Beam: I don't use the word “truth.” I go for accuracy.
Gillmor: When I read a newspaper article, my level of skepticism is lower than when I am reading a blog. However, I do wish newspapers would say “that is bullshit” more often if the interviewee tells an outright lie. A journalist's BS meter needs to be tuned differently for each interview.
Foley: Let me tell an anecdote to illustrate that point. The Republican challenger in Wisconsin's gubernatorial race is opposed to stem cell research. He declared that he would donate $25 million in an effort to create stem cells without even touching the blastocel of an embryo. No one is doing research like this. It's not possible right now. It was a hollow argument.
Journalism used to be all about he said, she said. Putting context in an article is something we're working hard on.
Question: Why do most newspapers give away today's content on the Web and charge for it in the papers? Then they charge to access that same content online the next day.
Beam: I don't think any of us know the answer to that question because it is a sophisticated business analysis, but this may be the way to make the most money.
Gillmor: This is a real profit center for the New York Times, but for more regional papers, if every article in your archive had a permalink to it, they would rise in Google rankings and increase revenues. I don't think that many newspapers would come out very far behind this way.
Question (continued): My suggestion is to go ahead and charge for what's on the Web today and then make it free the next day. Archiving articles locks them up pointlessly and buries writers' work.
Gillmor: Having one newspaper show up repeatedly on Web searches as the voice of authority and history must have more value than charging for access to archived material.
Regional and local papers should take advantage of this.
Foley: Speaking for the nation's regional papers, one of our biggest problems is that today's issues are all on microfilm tomorrow, not online. It would cost more than a million dollars to digitize our archives. It's hard for me to make this argument to our publisher, who is trying to make money and make ends meet.
Question: I am a newspaper reporter and I'm interesting in finding out if concentrating on hyperlocal news will save newspapers.
Foley: This goes back to giving people what they want and need. People on the outskirts of large metropolitan cities want this local news, but it is expensive for metropolitan newspapers to balance this with coverage of the city. Weekly community newspapers are beating out large city newspapers by providing small town news. The Wisconsin State Journal is using community pages on the Web for citizen-generated information. In Fort Meyers, a newspaper has mobile journalists, nicknamed mojos, who blog about anything from church dinners to traffic accidents. It isn't clear if this is verifiable information, but it is possibly the future of our business.
Question: I am studying journalism and I'm interested in hearing what you think journalism schools should be teaching students.
Foley: I have a master's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, but I didn't learn anything about journalism from school. I learned journalism on the job with the help of mentors and bosses.
Gillmor: I think the best journalism schools do a great liberal arts education. Students should come out willing to challenge assumptions, ask questions, and have a great curiosity. Anyone can learn to write a lead and come to understand the ethics of the business, but all journalists should be hankering to have a conversation with their audience.
Beam: It was mind-blowing for me to go to work for a daily newspaper because people really read what you wrote. It was amazing to learn what journalism really is at the age of 32. Just get a job at the Cape Cod Times and you'll know everything about journalism within two weeks.
Question: Let's assume newspapers don't survive. What will be the harm to the public and our democracy and how do we measure that harm? Will citizens actually be less informed? In 1992, about 47 percent of adults had trouble reading, but those statistics haven't improved in the last 13 years. If newspapers survive, what will they look like in five to ten years? What qualities will they have to have? To add an observation about Times Select, putting quality opinion behind a pay wall limits columnists' ability to reach and persuade a wide audience by setting up a class bias.
Gillmor: There's already a class bias in newspapers, because they are aimed at the top two-fifths of the population. The survival of newspapers won't do anything for the bottom three-fifths of the population.
Foley: The same situation is found with the Web because of the digital divide. Poor families are not able to afford the technologies that will give them access to this information.
Gillmor: I take for granted that this gear will become affordable for everyone. But the bigger problem is that we don't educate kids in this country. The traditional media is not interested in anybody below that top two-fifths because their advertisers aren't interested in anybody below that partition either. It would be tragic if what newspapers do disappears and I don't think it will.
Foley: We are a broad-based medium and we create a conversation that is very beneficial to our community. That will be lost if we go away.
A podcast of The Emergence of Citizens' Media is now available from Comparative Media Studies.
A webcast of The Emergence of Citizens' Media is now available from MIT World.