Berkeley J-School’s Chronicle panel: The horse-and-buggy set’s lament

[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 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.

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  1. Carlos

    Who will gather news once newspapers published on pulped cellulose are gone? Other than blogging by the original sources themselves, I think Josh Marshall’s TPM is closest to the future of journalism post-newspapers. Individual sites with a particular focus and a small staff of reporters with Google Reader or another aggregator acting as the newsroom. Instead of one large organization with separate departments (National, City Desk, Sports, etc.) there will be several small organizations with focused teams of reporters all working their specific, self-assigned beats. Right now, there are only a few sites that are able to sustain that model, but as the newspapers continue to disappear, the continuing demand for news will allow the entry of news players.

  2. But all this shouldn’t be surprising, just disappointing. People (not all) don’t like change, especially when it appears to threaten them in direct way like, “Oh dear – there goes my job.” I don’t have stats, but I suspect people generally prefer things to stay status quo. And there are always the usual generational tensions. These are new technologies, new ways of doing things, largely (though not exclusively) embraced by younger people. So resistance is to be expected. However, as they say in Star Trek, “Resistance is futile.”

    One other thing … I think people engaged in and/or engaged by many of the new “things” going on with technology sometimes lose perspective on how the larger population sees much of this. I try, not always successfully, to keep a foot in both worlds. There are many people who don’t know what Twitter is, or that it even exists, or what to do with it if they do. (As an example.) Where understanding is absent, fear often attends. And I think this often explains the kinds of responses you find at an event such as you describe.

  3. There are judges blogging, but are they blogging about what’s happening in their own courtrooms? I would be very surprised.

    It seems like most of the people in a courtroom won’t be in a position to honestly say what they think in public until the court case is over, and perhaps not even then. (But I haven’t looked.)

  4. Could have sworn I was at this exact panel a year ago. The talk then was how to “monetize the web.” I think that means taking what the newspaper does now and getting people to pay more for it. Altogether frustrating and unproductive.

  5. Kevin Weston is from New American Media and he said he spends only half his time as a reporter; the other half he spends selling NAM’s services, which include creating news for its clients — such as politicians — who want to get the attention of ethnic communities. This seems to be a viable model, at least for NAM.

    I’m sure there are other economic models for sustaining journalism, but the infrastructures we have no — including the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism — are almost defunct. Good report, Scott.

  6. Nice bit of reporting. The real question I have is: who puts together these panels? As much as I enjoy people opining about the past, it’s getting in the way of the work that needs to be done.

  7. Greg

    Crappy reporting, actually. Think any legitimate newspaper journalist would get away with “I didn’t catch his affiliation but I’m guessing this was him” line? Come on, ask him his name and affiliation. Do some reporting which means talk and find out, don’t just Google it and guess and bloviate later. Is this the kind of journalism that we can expect when the last newspaper reporter leaves the courthouse and the new thing magically happens? “I didn’t catch his role in the trial but I’m guessing this is the defendant.” The notion that judges will blog about cases in their court room or courthouse is laughable(Posner is an appeallte court, not trial court, judge , whose blog is an extention of his voluminous book writing). You obviously have no idea how a courthouse works,or the restrictions on judges about commenting on cases before them or that are active in the system. Or that judges routinely boot jurors off of panels when they are found to have blogged about a trial. Your glee and zeal to bury newspapers(lame boilerplate of I love newspapers aside) reveals how little you really know about doing local journalism and how local insitutions work, and how there is no real answer to what happens when the last experienced newspaper reporter leaves the courts or city hall. Full disclosure: I’m a newspaper writer who covers courts, and who fully expects to lose my job soon. One of the main reasons I have stayed through succesive rounds of buyout offers is that I refuse to cede the field, and the profession I love, to incompetents and half wits like this guy. If this kind of thinking is even a small part of the future of journalism, heaven help us.

  8. HB

    Sounds like you really understand the way media and economics work. It’s all about the web. So how much money you making on this site? And congrats on the book, published by Crown – that’s a website, right? Oh, an old growth horse-and-buggy book publisher? Why would you do that? Oh…you want to eat and have a house. How about you and Jeff Jarvis start to live by your code – no books, no paper-based articles. Just the web. See you at the welfare office.

  9. To bloviate means “to speak pompously and excessively” or “to expound ridiculously”. A colloquial verb coined in the United States, it is commonly used with contempt to describe the behavior of politicians, academics, pundits or media “experts,” sometimes called bloviators, who hold forth on subjects in an arrogant, tiresome way.

  10. Greg, you give Scott grief for not knowing the name of the person he was talking about but you don’t tell us who you are. This strikes me as fairly inconsistent. How can we judge your claims if we can’t check you out, and we can’t if we don’t know who you are.

  11. Not to be a jerk or anything, but your “there are judges blogging now” argument would be more effective if your example — Posner’s blog — was actually about what goes on in his courtroom. Instead, it’s just a blog about his views on various subjects that have nothing to do w/ the cases he’s hearing. A judge who blogs about his/her courtroom would help make your case; a guy blogging about random stuff who just happens to be a judge doesn’t, and in fact probably deflates your case.

  12. So, for your first five graphs all you do is bash the dead tree types with the same type of tired old — “look at me, I’m one of the only ones who can see the new world” — crap that we’ve been hearing for years from your side of these arguments as well.

    Yawn. Wake me up when you have something new or useful to add to the discussion.

    Five graphs, that’s about where I gave up on your “report”. Apparently “Greg” is the only one here who can write something that will actually keep me engaged.

    Thanks for the tip it was going to be long. You should have added boring and pointless as well.

    Come on dude. The horse-and-buggy newspaper analogy has been a refrain in every newsroom in America for over a decade now. You act as if you are a prophet for coming up with this analogy in 2009?

    I’m sorry but I’m just sick of all the sanctimonious “web” types pontificating about how somebody else “doesn’t get it”.

    You just went to the front of my list.

    But that’s OK, something will drop into my RSS any minute that will knock you from your post.

    OMG! Did I just say I RSS? Oh no I’m such a dinosaur!

    Off to the dust bin of antiquity I go. I’m sure I’ll see you there soon enough. Enjoy your moment of smug superiority.

  13. Scott Rosenberg

    Scott, since you only read the first five grafs I guess you missed the part where I talked about how much I love newspapers.

    HB, if I thought newspapers were going to continue to be a viable business I would have kept working at one, which I did for a decade. I left the SF Examiner in 1995 because I thought it was doomed. The paper essentially shut down 5 years later, so I think I made the right choice. My remaining colleagues went to work for the Chron; many of them now face the ax. I’m not dancing on anyone’s grave; I’m one of the mourners. But I’m not going to take seriously the people who are trying to tell us the patient is doing just fine, either. I’m delighted that books remain a semi-viable business but they’re going to fade fast over the next couple of decades too, and that’s going to be an even bigger deal than the passing of newspapers. These are huge crises — revolutions, even. They call for big ideas and radical experiments. I’m lamenting how little of that I encountered at Berkeley.

    On the judges blogging question — of course we’re not seeing judges blog about their cases. I covered legal issues at one point in my career; I know the rules. But the rules aren’t set in stone. They’re human conventions, and they may evolve as our communications technologies, social behavior, and political processes change.

    In the meantime, the fact that there are distinguished judges already participating in the blogosphere means that they may figure out the future somewhat faster than those journalists (a decreasing fraction, thankfully) who have decided that blogs and the Web are their enemy.

  14. In the first five paragraphs Scott told the story of what happened at the meeting. I don’t see what the problem is, except that I was executed in 1989 so obviously I am not really Nikolae Ceausescu, the former despot of Rumania.

  15. Scott: I really appreciate this precis of Monday evening’s event which I had wanted to attend but couldn’t. As someone who writes for the Chronicle, both on- and off-line, it’s in my interest that it survives. But I agree with you that some of the best local news reporting is now happening on the web — the 510 Report is a case in point, which, ironically, given your comments about UC, is out of UC.

  16. Oh, I read your whole piece. I’m just saying that by the fifth graph I was sufficiently turned off by the name-calling and flinging of pejoratives.

    My own vitriol aside, your word choice does you a disservice. You obviously have a command of the facts and a keen sense of current events. You raise many legitimate points.

    So why take an inflammatory tone with people who have thoughts and opinions that differ from your own? However wrongheaded they may be? You obviously can write, so I can only assume this is purposeful.

    How does another blogger publicly looking down his nose and denigrating those poor unenlightened buffoons really add anything to the ‘conversation’ you want to have? Why would any of them care to listen to what you have to say after you’ve called them wrongheaded, insular, and cut-off?

    It’s a shame, because you are dead right about things such as “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.”

    The point I’m making is if you have already pissed somebody off long before you get to any substance, why the hell would they want to listen to you?

    You seem genuinely worried about how nobody seems to want to hear (or get) what you’re trying to tell them is right in front of there noses. If you ever get around to these points without the bluster your position emerges with merit.

    I suspect the use of the word ‘conversation’ isn’t the trigger for your condescending dismissal. Perhaps calling them ‘insular’ might set them off?

    I wasn’t at this panel of course, I’m at least a few thousand miles away. Maybe these folks really do have their heads in the sand. I haven’t physically been in a room with anyone who thinks the patient isn’t already dead. If this room was full of people who don’t see that, well perhaps your indignation is warranted. But you of all people should know that your aren’t simply speaking to the people who were in that room here.

    As to your defense that you tossed in “the part where I talked about how much I love newspapers,” that rings pretty hollow.

    That little one-liner just comes off like “I’m not a racist, I have a black friend.”

    Fun trying to communicate in this new world isn’t it? Just be careful. It’s a short drop from thoughtful commentator to ranting blogger…..

  17. TJ Finney

    “Watchdog” role? I didn’t notice that the print media performed that role in the past 2 decades.

    Clinton, Bush and Obama used illegal drugs and half our prisoners are in jail for the same crime – any serious questioning during the so-called “debates”?

    Our government continues to spy on us and, it appears, journalists. Where are the stories?

    Armed US military are stationed off their bases, which is illegal. Merit a story? Apparently not.

    A gay, anti-gay Republican Senator gets his due, but not Democratic Congressmen who re-write the tax code for donations or favorable mortgages (Rangel and Dodd, in case you didn’t know).

    Print media is failing because it has become part of the system it is supposed to be covering. It has, perhaps unconsciously, become corrupted.

  18. Thanks for the elaboration, Scott. I can see where people might get their backs up. I guess I would hope that “insular” isn’t that inflammatory a term, given the level of anger and passion and name-calling this subject provokes (both online and at events like the one I wrote about) — though I admit that this post’s headline was also confrontational.

    The thing is, this exchange is not taking place in a vacuum — it comes after what (for me at least) is a nearly *fifteen year long* conversation on this subject. I started writing for the Web in 1994 while I was still working for a daily newspaper and left that paper a year later because, it seemed to me then, the writing was on the wall.

    So if you sense some level of exasperation it does not come out of the blue. “Communicating in this new world” isn’t a new thing for me, and by now, it really shouldn’t be a new thing for anyone who thinks of himself as a professional communicator of one stripe or another.

    If you have “never physically been in a room with anyone who thinks the patient isn’t already dead” that seems pretty remarkable to me. I feel like I’ve been encountering them — and having a mostly civil but yes, often exasperating — dialogue with them for years.

  19. Raising prices key strategy for troubled buggy business

    NEW YORK (AP) — The decline in wagon and buggy sales is accelerating as the industry continues to struggle with consumer defections to the automobile. Buggy sales have been declining since the early 1900s, but the drop has accelerated in recent years. Still, some wagon makers and buggy builders are actually increasing their retail prices. “In the face of declining sales, our strategy is to charge more for our product,” said Josiah Shepard, president of U.S. Wagon Manufacturing Co. “We plan to rehire some of the craftsman we laid off last year. This will allow us to build a better buggy, and we feel consumers will pay extra for this heightened quality.”



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