Thoughts on FOCAS 2009 & Journalism

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This is my 2nd post about the Aspen Institute event on the future of journalism — more on what went on & some thoughts I have. It’s long overdue, and is a follow-on post to this earlier post.

Here’s my punchline: I leave Aspen with no doubt that there is a crisis for traditional metro newspapers, and many will not survive. But I have to say that beyond some nostalgia, that doesn’t make me feel very bad, because I also leave with the sense that while there’s much change ahead for journalism as a profession and an industry, there’s no crisis. There’s significant innovation happening and new opportunities opening up for talented & dedicated people to find.

So I guess I leave Aspen optimistic, and much more optimistic than I expected to be.

The Format

There were about 50 people, give or take, which I understand is relatively large for an Aspen Institute event. The morning sessions were about 3 hours or so, with all of us around a (very large) table (picture above), moderated by Charlie Firestone — he’s an exceptional moderator, great at figuring out when to let everyone go into depth and when to move on. After lunch each day we had smaller breakout sessions, facilitated by various leaders (my 2 were led by Jeff Jarvis of CUNY and Sue Gardner of Wikimedia) — those went a couple of hours and then the leaderes worked on a synthesis and summary to present to the whole group the next day.

I talked with a few people who had been to events like this before, and I guess this felt a little bit on the large side, but with pretty great engagement and participation by some really outstanding people.

I will note that it was not a particularly diverse group — white men over 40 dominated — but there were a number of women that participated, and a few other non-white-men. But with a subject like this — and in particular with it’s relevance to how democracy works (or doesn’t work) — I think we’d all be best served with more diversity of thought & background.

Some Things That We’ve Talked About

We started the sessions Monday by talking about the Knight Commission on the Needs of Communities in a Democracy — Marissa, who’s co-chair, gave an update on their progress and some thoughts about what may be in the report when they issue it later this year. It’s going to be a report worth reading, and highlights both concerns about where journalism may be failing us as a democracy and some potential solutions.

That’s framed a lot of our discussions this week — the idea that democracies need certain services, some provided by journalists, to succeed and thrive. And John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, started with a definition: that journalism provides the information needed [for people] to be free and self-governing. (from The Elements of Journalism, by Kovach and Rosenstiel)

I struggle with the focus on American journalism, for what it’s worth. I don’t know that that’s the right way to think about the characteristics that are important for an engaged citizenry — because, clearly, there are other places in the world today where certain aspects of informing citizens are being much better served than here in the US. Still, I think that Scott Lewis (CEO of voiceofsandiego.org) said it best (I’m paraphrasing): “We’re not really here to talk about saving newspapers or journalists’ jobs — but there are some beautiful parts of the history of journalism in America, and we’re here to talk about which those are and how to preserve the most beautiful and necessary in a time of change.”

Scott’s got it right, I think. It’s not really about “saving” or “preserving” institutions — it should be about figuring out what we need in a modern world, what’s possible with technology, and what characteristics and skills and ethics should be non-negotiable.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is that there’s not much concern at all about national & international publications — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Financial Times, to name a few. The consensus is that those institutions, while under pressure and experimenting, will figure out how to survive. The most concern was about local papers, really, and about the loss of investigative journalism. And I think the basic assumption that most people here are making is that most metro newspapers will not be able to survive, at least not without change that will make them unrecognizable.

That, too, seems right to me, and I have to say that I’m not too sorry about this development. Local papers were always geographically-based monopolies — vertical integrations of information that had high barriers to entry due to the cost of printing & distribution & ad sales. It seems okay to me that they’ll go away, by and large (because I think you’ll get what you most need in different ways — classifieds by things like CraigsList, sports news from any number of places, local event information from hyper-local blogs, and investigative reporting from a couple of new classes of org that I’ll talk about below). It’s sad when newspapers disappear, for sure — many of these are 50 or 100 year institutions that have served their public well — but I think that in the overall scheme of things, this is not such a terrible problem.

The breakup of these vertically integrated companies will mean that there’s a much more complicated creation chain that will happen, and that we’ll get our news and information in increasingly unique (to each of us) ways. I’m most hopeful that this will allow smaller, more focused organizations to contribute however they’re best able to contribute. I think that will mean a mix of non-profit and for-profit, a mix of big & small, a mix of points-of-view, purposes, and ways of working. I think there is no doubt that this will be a hugely chaotic time as we evolve into what’s next, and I think it will be some time while we all learn how to read again (understanding point-of-view, and the way that stories are constructed), but eventually we’ll be in a better place than ever.

I’m encouraged by the work of many of the attendees, but in particular these: Voice of San Diego, the Center for Investigative Research, and Pro Publica.

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