Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The business model for newspapers isn’t toast, but it’s in the toaster"

Because I promised, and you already know I'm slow, here's a dispatch from the investigative journalism conference I attended in Berekely, CA in early April.

Overall, it was a good couple of days that largely showcased various investigative stories on corruption and the journalists who uncovered them (this Frontline doc was the feature).  It was a clubby affair of many long-serving journalists from the major branded news outlets, and I was generally fascinated listening to the undercurrent of it all, which was naturally the "what the heck happened to our industry?"  My favourite quote was from Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, who began his remarks with the quip, "the business model for newspapers isn't toast, but it's in the toaster." [as an aside, later that week I read that he equated saving the Times to saving Darfur, so he obviously has a gift for the soundbite]

The most interesting and useful session, given Samara's objectives, was the last one on the future of investigative journalism (glad I didn't duck out early).  You can read the details here.  My favourite panellist was Esther Kaplan from The Nation Institute.  The group has been around since 1966 and was created to address the bias in the independent press to write opinion pieces since no one had the resources to do reporting.  These days she's getting more and more requests from freelancers, bloggers and new journalists for mentoring and support since there aren't a lot of older people around newsrooms to help anymore.  She said, "I feel like I'm the social safety net for independent journalists."  This jives with some of our early thinking at Samara, where we've identified some big gaps on the professional development side for those doing public affairs journalism - regardless of the medium.  For example, there's really no media and public policy course taught in our journalism schools, save for a bit at Carleton.  Nor is there much support provided to practising journos, whether attached to media organizations or working independently.  In any event, we've promised to stay in touch on our respective efforts.

I was also reminded of some of the things I miss most about living and working in the States (of course, there's much I don't miss).  Specifically, despite my best efforts, I didn't know the half of the tremendous proliferation of interesting media experiments happening all over the US.  I lost count of the number of foundations and wealthy individuals funding journalism and investigative work of varying sorts.  There were also a number of local news experiments (this and this were particularly interesting, and these examples don't even begin to scratch the surface on the local news front).  I also learned of some neat university collaborations, news literacy projects, workshops and incubators, legal collaboratives, global networks of reporters.... the list goes on.  In short, a lot for us to learn from, and we'll share what we find with you as we get into the details.

On a final note, one of the major threads running through the conference (besides the "what the heck" stuff I mentioned earlier) was the need for journalism to be more "collaborative."  There were a couple of examples of people doing apparently radical things like talking to each other and even going as far as sharing ideas and sources within and across news organizations!  The horrors!  I was a bit shocked, frankly, as none of these "radical" things seemed all that radical to me.  I suppose I didn't appreciate how the old model, where resource constraints weren't so real, may have limited creativity quite so much.  I'll leave it to Dave Eaves to analyze that nut further.


Reva said...

A great article in the NYT over the weekend looking at how US journalism schools are rethinking what the "toasted" nature of the industry means for journalism education...an interesting and surprising twist in the age of the blogger - enrollment in journalism schools (at least in the US) is apparently still growing, although students seem realistic about job prospects: a poster hanging in the hall reads"Want stability in journalism? Get a job in P.R."

See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/education/edlife/journ-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=journalism&st=cse&scp=1

Ron said...

Nice post, Alison. Hope you enjoyed Berkeley. Few thoughts:

1) There are some interesting business models popping up, the problem is they are all non-profit. The media industry will continue to struggle until it comes up with a new, profitable and sustainable model.

2) Part of the issue is that the media was lulled into the thought that content should be given away for free. The perception therefore is that content is a commodity and can be easily replaced. Note that publications such as Economist have been able to differentiate and raise prices. Why can Apple raise prices on music but media can't raise prices on reporting?

3)Agree with your comments on J-school. As a graduate of Carleton, I can say we were taught too much theory on journalism and not enough on the subjects we will cover. Jon Stewart's criticism of the media's handling of the financial crisis highlights this.

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