[Warning — long post ahead! This happens when one has a transcontinental flight during which to blog.]
A panel at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism that I attended yesterday evening was titled “The SF Chronicle in Transition.” “Transition,” here, is plainly a euphemism; the title ought to have been “The Chronicle In Extremis,” and the mood was that of a wake.
There is plenty of cause for communal handwringing in the face of the wrenching cutbacks and shutdowns that are plaguing newspapers across the U.S. and that most recently have threatened the survival of our major Bay Area daily, which has reportedly been losing its owner, the Hearst Corporation, $50 million a year, and looks likely to cut its staff by half if owners and unions reach an agreement. If not, Hearst has threatened to shut the paper down, leaving this city without a major daily newspaper. (It’s hard to believe that Hearst would simply write off its huge investments in the Chron, however; the threat sounds more like a negotiating tactic than a serious option.)
The panel offered a by now familiar litany, a mixture of wrongheaded cliches with legitimate fears. Heard, for instance, was the old canard that giving up newspapers for the Web means we won’t ever stumble on things we didn’t know we were interested in. (In fact, hugely popular sites like Boing Boing or Kottke.org have professionalized the generation of serendipity, and our Twitter friends feed us as varied a diet of links as we choose to feast on.) Here was the routine complaint about rudeness and “uninformed shouting” in comments forums. (A brief shouting match between one member of the crowd at the Berkeley event and the editor and publisher of the Berkeley Daily Planet — from what I could hear, about whether a writer had been censored — was as rude and off-topic as anything I’ve seen in a newspaper comments section.)
Beyond the usual Web-bashing lay some realistic worries about how we’ll get our local news and who will perform the public-interest watchdog role if newspapers vanish. “We’re in for a real dangerous period where there’s no one watching the store,” Lowell Bergman, the veteran investigative reporter, predicted.
Not that the Chronicle ever excelled in that role. As Bergman put it, “The Chronicle and Examiner never lived up to what they could have been” or gave the Bay Area the great paper it deserved. Kevin Weston (I didn’t catch his affiliation but I’m guessing this is him) complained that the Chronicle had failed to serve local communities, particularly the city’s huge Asian American population.
Public radio producer Holly Kernan started the panel off well, with a cogent declaration that we should stop talking about saving newspapers and focus on saving public-interest journalism. Yet the great majority of the two-hour event felt weirdly disconnected from the urgent need for journalists today to adapt to the new medium that will inevitably be the locus of their future work. The panelists seemed to understand intellectually that newspaper publishing is a sunset industry, but they hadn’t yet accepted this fact emotionally. They eagerly talked about schemes for placing some sort of a “news tax” on electronic devices, or government subsidies and antitrust-law exemptions, or taxing Google. They did not seem overly concerned that government support might defang the public’s watchdogs. They did not seem to get that our job is not to save newspapers but to save journalism from the inevitable wreckage of newspapers.
“My passion is to preserve newspapers,” said Clint Reilly, the local gadfly and dogged opponent of newspaper consolidation. That’s fine; good luck. But preservation is for cadavers. Journalism can’t be practiced in museums and mausoleums. We need lively experiments — and they are happening, already, all over the Web landscape. Yet the Berkeley discussion seemed to take place in a vacuum, entirely cut off from the online ferment, the creative efforts underway on a thousand sites to connect the knowledge of journalism professionals with the energy and ideas and contributions of the rest of the vast writing public.
Consider the public record of the event itself. A camera crew for a local TV station hovered at one side of the J-School library, but I’d be shocked if more than 30 seconds of the event ever made it onto the airwaves. Was there anyone covering the event from the Chronicle? Not that I could find today.
But that didn’t mean the panel wasn’t covered. Dave Winer wrote it up from his point of view, and I hope everyone who was at the event reads what he said. (Read it if you weren’t there, too!) And I’m providing this account, for free — a little bit of reporting, a little bit of commentary — because I care about the subject. It will serve as one record of the event among many. If I got it wildly wrong, there’s a good chance somebody else who was there will show up and dispute my version in the comments. And if UC Berkeley does what it ought to do, it will post a recording of the panel, so you can check what I’ve written against the full original source yourself.
In the Q&A, I piped up and suggested that the panel’s perspective sounded insular and cut off from the vast conversation on the Web. Now, to many of the old school of newspaper journalism, the word “conversation” is a trigger for a certain kind of condescending dismissal. We know about your conversation — some conversation! Ranting bloggers. Rabid commenters.
It’s too bad, because the conversation I was thinking of was the one we had on the Web this past weekend, featuring a pair of extraordinarily valuable essays on the future of news posted by Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson. There was no sign that anyone on the panel had read them.
The Journalism School’s dean, Neil Henry, said that yes, he knew there was a conversation on the Web, but what about the disappearance of local beat reporting? In San Francisco, he said, there’s only one reporter left who covers the courthouse. I asked, did he think that would stay that way? I don’t think he responded, but I got the impression that he, along with others in the room, held little hope for the ability of the Web to generate new models of support for local reporting. If newspapers didn’t do it, their attitude seemed to be, it was never going to happen.
I’m a lot more hopeful. I don’t think the big-budget newsroom is the only way to cover a local beat; it’s just the only way we know right now. It will take time, and the new models may not match the old-style newsrooms job for job; but before long we will have a growing number of people earning their living covering their communities on the Web, just as we did on paper.
Immediately after my exchange with Henry, the moderator called on Dave Winer, and he summarized the story of blogging in a beautifully condensed few sentences — an elevator-pitch-quality distillation of a decade-long evolution. In the tech industry, he said, people had gotten so fed up with inaccurate coverage that they started going direct on the Web, telling their own stories via blogs. The same thing would eventually happen, he declared, even at the courthouse: “The judge is going to start blogging.”
Laughter spread across the room at this suggestion. Preposterous! But of course there are judges blogging now. That so few in the crowd had any inkling of this — given the longevity and eminence of Posner’s blog — suggests how large the gulf still is between the world of the journalism school, as represented by Berkeley Monday night, and the world of today’s Web.
I love newspapers, and I’m sad to watch them dwindle. I loved my LPs too; but I own an iPod.
As I listened last night, I couldn’t help thinking, this is what it must have been like to attend a horse-and-buggy lovers’ conclave when the automobiles began to sell. That was a technological transition which, like ours today, offered plenty to worry about: traffic and safety and air pollution. But I bet the majority of the horse crowd preferred to concoct schemes for keeping the carriages and saddles filled — long after people had chosen a different way to get where they wanted to go.
- March 17, 2009 @ 13:26:28 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- March 17, 2009 @ 13:25:11 by Scott Rosenberg