I was grateful to attend the Chicago Journalism Town Hall today, organized by Ken Davis, a long time WBEZ news director, with the purpose of exploring, essentially, how to save the Chicago news business.
I said I was grateful for going because I thought I was going to listen and partake in a thoughtful conversation on business models, to explore what works/what doesn’t, where the news is headed, etc. What I got was much different.
A quick glance at the experienced and talented panel kind of said it all. A lot of big names in Chicago journalism were up there. Glaringly absent though were advertisers, managers and any academics from some of the fine Chicago j-schools. Basically, what was needed to have a thoughtful conversation looking at different angles of the journalism business was not included (except for Andrew Huff of Gapers Block and Ben Goldberger of Huffington Post). Instead, we got what was to be expected from a room full journalists and PR pros in a crumbing industry – a lot of complaining.
The conversation actually started out on the right note. Mike Miner from the Reader said that papers are like utilities who are unprepared for this day in age and has to be replaced by “younger, brighter and more creative managers.”
It became a bitch-fest full of bad ideas from there.
John Calloway said that the advent of online media was leading to traditional journalists’ stories being “stolen” and not credited elsewhere on the web.
Geoff Dougherty of ChiTown Daily News advocated the non-profit business model for new media ventures.
Carol Marin of the Sun Times argued that big media and their budgets are needed so that journalists can challenge access to sealed and hard-to-get documents in court.
Eric Zorn of the Tribune said the problem with Chicago journalism isn’t lack of interest, it’s how to monetize that interest.
Lee Bey said that newspapers were successful only when vertically integrated. The news organizations had to own the means of production and the delivery mechanisms.
Another high(low)light came from Carlos Hernandez-Gomez who said that non-”professional journalism” brought stories with a point of view. Taking a position, he said, is not journalism. Hmmm. Was he aware of the whole media bias thing floating around out there in the world? Or the fact that both the Tribune and Sun Times endorses candidates. Does that maybe call into question “accurate” reporting?
Finally, PR pro Carolyn Grisko suggested journalists should stop giving away content for free. Content should be paid for by the people who use it. Wait, didn’t the New York Times abandon the Times Select model because it failed? I thought we were over the paid content wall of several years ago.
Eyes started popping though when Sachin Agarwal, President and CEO of dawdle.com, argued that online publishers can make money and can make big money. Traditional media outlets just had to abandon their ways of doing business and adopt new models of sharing, linking and delivering news in compelling ways.
Brad Flora, founder of WindyCitizen.com, then pointed out how far the panelists had gotten off track. First, he said traditional journalists stole stories and story ideas without credit to their original authors constantly. There is no recognition of that. Second, news aggregators like his site and other online media who link out are good things for traditional journalists. They need not fear traffic diverted from their sites. After all, Flora said, good content will get noticed and the crap ignored. The good content will get linked to and that’s just good for any journalist and media outlet looking to sell advertising.
Carol Marin brought some sensibility to the panel when she responded to Flora that she did sense the panel was not looking beyond their narrow worldview. But just as much as journalists have to learn from new media pros, new media pros also have stuff to learn from journalists too. That’s a great message.
But, if I can pontificate here, the panelists missed the point big time and it’s clear the next generation of media pros did get it. I talked about the Tribune‘s bankruptcy months ago and said at that time good content rules. In other words, there’s always a market for good content. In the 0nline and linked world, good content is easier to find and connect with. Journalists need to focus on content and the other side of the business needs to focus on delivering content in a way that makes sense, listening to their audience and building relationships with them. That’s the formula cystalizing for successful and sustainable media.