"End of Local News?" symposium panelists (from left) Jayne Miller, Tim Franklin, Jake Oliver, Kevin Klose, Monty Cook, and Mark Potts, as seen in a photograph taken by a professional journalist who is not a professional photographer. | Image by Lee Gardner Journalists love a good story, especially about journalism. A significant fraction of the audience that filed into the University of Maryland's Westminster Hall in downtown Baltimore Tuesday evening for a symposium titled "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" pulled out pens and notebooks or circled the rows of chairs with cameras, clicking away. As the discussion, put on by UM's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, proceeded, panelist Jayne Miller asked how many people in the audience used to work in at The Baltimore Sun. It's safe to say that much of the rest of the audience raised a hand.
As organizer/emcee Sandy Banisky, a former Sun staffer now with the Merrill School, noted in her opening remarks, the symposium took place at "a time of profound changes in the media, a time of great tumult." It's a summation that still manages to understate the current situation, most pertinently at The Sun, which is still staggering from yet another recent round of layoffs and reorganization. The panelists included current Sun Editor Monty Cook and his predecessor Tim Franklin, now on the faculty at Indiana University, as well as WBAL-TV's Miller, Afro-American Publisher Jake Oliver, and web journalism early adopter/pioneer Mark Potts, the co-founder of washingtonpost.com; Merrill Dean Kevin Klose moderated.
Those on the dais held forth extemporaneously for the most part, but Sun editor Monty Cook opened the proceedings by reading a prepared spiel that sounded more like a corporate-retreat speech than shoptalk among fellow journos. He referred to "consumers" rather than readers and "content" rather than stories. He stressed the Sun's commitment to (pronounced in a breathless litany) "investigative, enterprise, watchdog, and accountability journalism" while neglecting to acknowledge the series of cost cuts that have patently hobbled the paper's ability to mount such work. He noted that "engaging audience through social media has already generated solid results for the Sun" without specifying what those solid results were. Not to pick on Cook, who has a difficult job to say the least, but the brass tacks were not gotten down to. He concluded with an apparent attempt at reinforcing the bond between reader-or, rather, consumer-and daily, positing that once the Sun publishes a story, its life comes from those who read it, comment on it, share it. "If you read it," he concluded, "it's yours."
Kevin Klose's subsequent segue immediately deflated Cook's rhetoric with what turned out to be the question of the night, "No matter what we're doing, how do we continue to pay for it?" The story may be "yours," in effect, but "you" don't want to pay for it online. Thus the business model that has supported the production of that story for generations is eroding rapidly, and no one who got near a mic had any satisfactory answers for how a traditional, big-overhead print-based newsgathering operation like the Sun can continue in the increasingly web-based world, much less reverse the current slide.
Jayne Miller, for her part, decried the ongoing decline of the Sun (she's a New York Times subscriber now, she said) and after asking for the show of hands from former Sun employees, gravely observed, "The amount of talent and expertise and experience and knowledge that is sitting in this room and not working for the newspaper is staggering." She pointed out that while TV news isn't in straits as dire as those facing print media, concerned citizens shouldn't look to broadcast media to take up the watchdog slack. "Television stations are not going to expand their staffs by 40 people when newspapers diminish," she stated flatly. "Not gonna happen."
"If anybody tells you with absolute certainty what the future of urban journalism is, then they don't know what they're talking about," Tim Franklin said. "The situation is so fluid . . . and the pace of change is happening so quickly that it's impossible, I think, to forecast with precision what may result from this." He went on to add that, as he saw it, the economic downturn coupled with changes in reader habits and the proliferation of niche web sites encroaching on the purview of traditional media probably meant more papers closing and more journalists out of work. He did mention that enrollment in the Indiana University journalism school is up 50 percent, near an all-time high, though what form of journalism this new wave of students will go on to practice upon graduating remains unknown.
Mark Potts presented some possible answers for that question, running through several browser screens worth of tabs for the web sites of traditional Baltimore media (including City Paper) as well as internet-based upstarts and adjuncts ranging from Investigative Voice to Kid Baltimore to the Ravens' official web site, wherein a well-financed sports team distributes stories and photos to fans directly without pesky reporters and columnists getting in its way. He also brought up new-model online resources that have sprung up elsewhere, from the much-touted non-profit Voice of San Diego to the Washington, D.C. edition of Fwix, a localized blog-post aggregator site that bills itself as "your new local newspaper." As Potts noted, "They're not kidding around." Miller later rebutted that none of the alternatives Potts presented appeared to be doing the kind of the sort of in-depth, reliable work that a professional newsroom generates; while continuing to express interest in and admiration for experiments such as Voice of San Diego, even Potts acknowledged, "Are these the future? who knows?"
The discussion moved on to the new Kaiser Network online-based health-coverage wire service as a possible new content model, but once it came time to open up the discussion to the floor, a handful of obviously hostile questioners dominated the mic to challenge Cook over, essentially, the current state of the Sun, ranging from questions about Cook attempting to "bury" the print edition of the paper to grumping about "pernicious, shameful" anonymous online comments. The questioner who raised the latter issue, former Sun staffer Arnold Isaacs, did pose an interesting question: "Is there a demand in the public for intelligent news?"
The panel's answer seemed to be, in essence, yes there is, but the question of how to finance intelligent news in the years to come, as readership increasingly migrates online and the online advertising model lags behind, lingered unanswered. Various schemes to solicit pay for online content were raised and more or less dismissed-any barrier to free content results in a massive traffic drop, Potts and Cook concurred, costing more money in lost page views than such fees could reasonably recoup.
Franklin expressed confidence that some successful business/format model would shake out in the long term, but made clear the high stakes in the short term. "When I was editor of the Sun and I had 384 people in the newsroom, I worried that I didn't have enough reporters keeping track of all the people that Jayne and the other journalists were chasing," he said. "We do have such a critical oversight role in this democracy. So my hope is that whatever model we get to, we get to it quickly."
The Afro's Jake Oliver was the only one of the panelists who didn't seem particularly anxious. While he allowed that daily newspaper readers were literally "a dying breed," he mildly professed excitement over new web-based opportunities for publications such as the Afro. He, like everyone else on the panel and in the room, seemed most concerned about the Sun and its future. Whatever the format, he opined in his closing remarks, the Sun will continue, if only because it is such a strong brand and such an institution in the lives of so many Baltimoreans.
"A world . . . without the Sun, at least in Baltimore, is just something that I don't think will happen," he said, "because other forces will come to play that recognize the importance of that niche that cannot, in fact, be replaced." This recognition will, in some unspecified way, he continued, "precipitate its survival."
In short, he has faith. And judging from this symposium, that's all anyone has right now.