Farewell Old Friends
The Decoupling of News and Paper
By Edward Shanahan
The daily avalanche of bad news about the future of the US newspaper business reads like an advance obituary, which is painful to those of us who spent much of our professional and personal lives reading and toiling for newspapers.
For centuries the American newspaper was an enduring element in our unique system of democracy. Those of us involved in the work were proud of our role even if our critics did not share our enthusiasms. For them it was often a love/hate relationship.
Today, by any measure, most daily newspapers are beyond hurting, as they try to reinvent themselves to avoid vanishing completely as printed sources of news, information, entertainment and opinion.
Across the board, newspaper readership is sinking, especially among those under age 55, advertising revenue continues to plummet, thousands of reporters and editors have been let go or bought out, coverage is being curtailed, numbers of newspaper pages are dwindling. And all this is occurring before the full effects of the looming nationwide economic recession takes its further toll.
While this decline had been gradual for years, it is now accelerating at a surprisingly rapid pace.
The popular explanation is that consumers of news and information are gravitating in escalating numbers to the Internet and its growing universe of sites, abandoning traditional sources of news. And so they are.
Hundreds of thousands of us who have staked a place for ourselves in the Internet landscape – as lonely bloggers, professional reporters and editors, volunteer citizen journalists or for-profit media businesses - are both a source of and an alternative to the newspaper’s long-term problem. We’re on the cusp of momentous change, and we can’t imagine what the final results will look like.
Against this background, I touched base recently with Bill Densmore, director of the New England News Forum, which was created in 2006 and operates out of space at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The News Forum, funded with an initial grant of $75,000 from the Knight Foundation, has kept a low profile during its first year, although Densmore plans to raise its visibility from this point onward.
Densmore, 54, was a student at UMass more than 30 years ago and was involved with the Daily Collegian, worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, and covered campus news for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, which is when I first knew him.
He subsequently worked as a full-time reporter for the AP, and other news organizations, started a weekly paper in Northern Berkshire County, and has been an active student of journalism and consultant and director for various media projects.
According to the non-profit New Forum’s mission statement the organization’s role will be to offer “an independent resource which can help define, research, advise – and hopefully strengthen and expand – the relationship between news producers and news consumers.”
Much of the language in the statement is somewhat abstract, for example: “On the web we will offer journalists, web-news entrepreneurs and active citizens a place to engage in discussion, to share and resolve disagreements over media issues such as privacy, coverage, access, accuracy, bias and emphasis.”
I was especially interested in Densmore’s view of the impact of the explosive growth in Internet news and information sites, in all of their shapes, sizes, goals and competence. Is this the future?
Some half dozen educational events held throughout the New England region, Densmore said, have attracted “media professionals and regular citizens” to discuss the relationship between traditional and citizen journalists.
Mini-forums in each state in the region, except Rhode Island, have focused on the impact on the impact of on-line news and information delivery about public policy issues like casino gambling.
“News and paper are becoming decoupled in peoples’ minds,” he said, as more consumers turn to the web and more volunteer non-professionals report on their own communities rather than rely solely on the established media to do that work for them.
The News Forum, says Densmore, “tries to look at what’s happening on the web … and help navigate a confusing landscape.”
“How can we get more people doing news, lots of people like you, doing the work you are doing?” he asks.
“Journalism is no longer a priesthood,” he said, as newspapers shrink in size and influence. “But you’ve got to invent a structure for helping people to learn the principles of journalism, verification, transparency, ethics, accuracy.”
There are so many different kinds of on-line community-based sites, according to Densmore, that the term blog “does not adequately describe what you do,” referring to downstreet.net and others like it. “We need to come up with a better term.”
To that end, he is involved organizing a three-day event in Minneapolis in June “to bring together on-line entrepreneurs and local on-line news and community enterprises.” He sees it as a convening of the Society of American News and Community Forums. “Note, I don’t say blogs,” he adds.
Densmore said that the mainstream media at first took a “holier than thou attitude” toward the Internet news upstarts, but “now that they see their house crumbling around them they’ve had to have an attitude adjustment.”
With the web awash in an outpouring of on-line local volunteer journalism, or “hyperjournalism,” Densmore sees a pressing need for what he calls “news literacy education,” a need that over time the News Forum can position itself to meet.
“Kids are raised without the news habit, and the 15-year-old is at the mercy of what they find on the web, even if it’s unreliable,” he explained.
Journalism programs have to change too, he said, to “broaden their reach to be more available” to students in all fields. “Journalism 101” ought to be part of the college core curriculum, he suggested, because in the future “all of us will be doing journalism in one form or another” to take advantage of Internet possibilities. For those who produce on-line news and information “it would be good to know something about libel and slander,” because right now it is “such a wild, wild west” on line.
“I think we need to exercise professional restraint,” he said, otherwise “too many people are going to get hurt” by reckless and irresponsible web postings.
For the last 20 years, Densmore said, the main concern was the perceived evils of the monolithic media. The challenge today is to work out the transition to the on-coming more democratic, more local form of Internet media, now that “corporate media is self-destructing.”
He intends the New England News Forum to play a role in that transition. “I get the feeling if we can stick around we will be looked to as a resource by the media and the public.”
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