Saturday, December 12, 2009

FutureNews at the FTC

Yeah, we missed it. There was just so much else going on. Tiger imploded, the health-care reform debate reached its latest fever pitch, and the death by a thousand cuts that is our economy kept doing what it’s doing.

So we almost forgot about a two-day panel discussion on Dec. 1 and 2, at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. This spirited discussion, "From Town Crier to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" focused on the future of news, a topic approached from a variety of perspectives that definitely represent where we’ve been coming from, and should represent where we’re going.

Bryan Monroe, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, editorial director of Ebony Magazine (and a former colleague from the San Jose Mercury News), made some telling points about the persistence of old-media thinking in the new media age, especially as it relates to minorities cracking the industry’s various institutional ceilings.

“Firstly, I think it's important to acknowledge where we are today. Fresh exciting digital news initiatives are cropping up all over the country, but in most cases these new media ventures looking a whole lot like old media, only less diverse in more ways.

“Look no further than the 17 of 17 white staff members of Aol.'s new sphere.com, or the single African-American reporter at the Politico. Or the initial lack of diversity at Chicago's new co-op journalism venture. You know, we're starting off on the wrong foot. With the recent closures, bankruptcies, declining circulation, layoffs and the legacy media business, it's proven that cutting its way to success won't work. We know we can't grow from a crouched position. But journalism is not dead, by a long shot. It is, however, in the process of painfully shedding its old skin for a new one.

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“But in that battle for its soul between old media and new media, something important is being lost. We are now living [in] a new America. For the underlying DNA of journalism, accuracy, inclusion, clarity, storytelling, fairness and truth, to live on, it must find a new host. To succeed, we must make sure diverse voices, all voices, are represented in digital and on the web. It's time for media to start to play offense not just defense.

“Part of it is fundamentally that it's access to the circles where the money is happening, to the venture capitalists, to the angels, to the conversations when the deals get made or the ideas get floated. They're not just journalists of color, but entrepreneurs of color need to be in those rooms, need to be in those -- when you're at school you have your friends and your buddies that you come up with.

“The circle needs to be wider, and I think by that, you'll see more ideas go from just a back room thought to a full-fledged venture, and the closer they get to becoming a venture, the better the chance for their success will be.”

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Mark Contreras, E.W. Scripps senior vice president, picked up on a trend that’s becoming the norm in online editorial: an evolving paradigm that obeys the power of the headline — maybe even the primacy of the headline — as a way to reach the reader.

“[T]he consumption of headlines is much more prevalent than a deep vertical reading of a news story. So consumers are consuming much more horizontally. And by that I mean nuggets, headlines, even a word in a headline represents consumption, far less consumption deep and vertically, and that, to me, indicates that the headline is just as valuable, and the content that we originate and create is just as valuable for the Internet world as the depth of the reporting.

“Both are critical to what journalism is, but the consumption indicates that there's far more sporadic consumption than in the print product.”

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And leave it to the disturber in chief, Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post and new-media firebrand, to impart the overall sense of where things are going. By way of going upside the head of media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch, Huffington set the table, if not the agenda, for the future of online editorial media:

“[T]his is inarguably a brave new media world and there's no use living in digital denial. The information superhighway is a busy thoroughfare, and there is going to be some roadkill along the way, but only among those who insist on merging into traffic riding a horse and buggy.”

“These contributions of citizen journalists, bloggers and others who are not paid to cover the news — it's constantly mocked and derided. It's as though people in the old media cannot really understand that technology has enabled millions of consumers to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation. From coach potato to self-expression. You know, writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook, editing photos, uploading videos and making music are just a few of the active entertainment options now available to people. But when they dare to begin to show a significant shift in consumer habits, traditional media responded by belittling web journalism.

“The same people who never question why consumers would sit on a couch and watch TV for eight hours straight, can't understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues great and small that interest — and even though this is not the way they make their living. They don't understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, they really don't. They don't understand the people who maintain their own blogs for free.

“They don't understand people who write blogs for The Huffington Post for free, we constantly get that. They don't understand people who Twitter for free, they constantly don't understand people who update their Facebook pages for free — who want to tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities for free.

“And they need to understand that, if they are to understand the future of journalism.”

Image credits: Monroe: © Johnson Publishing Co. Sphere logo: © 2009 Aol. Inc. Contreras: Associated Press. Huffington: Associated Press via paidcontent.org

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