Let’s Talk Some More

Oh for God’s sake:

Davis has booked the Walnut Room of the Hotel Allegro (171 W. Randolph) from 1 to 4 PM Sunday, February 22. He’s lined up Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, former Sun-Times media writer Rob Feder, NBC’s Carol Marin, author Alex Kotlowitz, In These Times’s Salim Muwakkil, Columbia College journalism professor Barbara Iverson, Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop, master blogger and former Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, Chi-Town Daily News founding editor Geoff Dougherty, and myself. WTTW’s John Callaway and Ben Goldberger, the editor of the Chicago edition of the Huffington Post, are maybes.


There are a couple other crucial constituencies that, as this conference is shaping up, won’t be adequately represented. The Walnut Room seats 350, Davis explains, “and at first we figured we’ll never fill the room.” Now it doesn’t seem big enough. He wants “every news-gathering entity in Chicago” represented, and if every­body does come—and every entity he’s contacted so far has sounded interested—there’ll be little if any room left for the public. The best Davis can do is promise that by the time of the conference he’ll have a Web site up and running where he’ll post an audio recording of the discussion the next day.

And the panel, for all its old-school experience, strikes me as short on the next generation of news producers and consumers—i.e., the people most likely to brim with original ideas about how to get from here to there, and about what there looks like. Beers told me about a couple of “buzzwords” he floated in San Francisco that caught on—presumably because the rescue process is still in that early, desperate stage when people cling to buzzwords. One was hybrid model—to describe for-profit online sites like his own that oversee not-for-profit reporting initiatives the foundations can get behind. The other was coopetition. That’s Beers’s term for a Common Market sort of online world in which sites link to each other in the name of synergy while promoting their individual brands. “Those ideas sound a little soft,” Beers admitted, “but they got it going.”

Look, I hesitate to criticize a thing that hasn’t happened yet, but looking at the lineup of people who’ve been there during the past fifteen years of gradually worsening crisis and have shown themselves pretty powerless to stop it so far, I’m having a hard time seeing this as anything other than yet another academic excerise in therapy.

This is mainly because in addition to the panel being short on “next-gen” types, it’s also short on news money people, ie the people who caused this whole crisis in the first place. Journalists can come up with all the good ideas they want, put a report together, bind it and collate it and distribute it to the entire world. Until you get the bosses to listen, you’re talking to yourself, and while that might make you feel better, it ain’t gonna change anything.

These are all interesting folks; some — like Kotlowitz and Marin — I really admire, but where are the news organizations’ financial decision-makers? The business managers, publishers, sales department heads, marketing and distro guys? They’re the ones that need a panel, and need to be coming up with answers, because they’re the ones responsible here, and it’s high time they were told that, instead of continuing to be allowed to place the burden of “saving local journalism” on the people who already work their asses off to DO local journalism. I know, I know, decisions are made by those who show up, but it’s time we started demanding the bosses show up.

As to thinking about money and the non-profit question we’ve been writing about a lot, Davis does intend to include local foundations, but to “seat them separately:”

Davis tells me Rich Cahan, coauthor of several news-photo collections and the organizer of the photo project “Chicago in the Year 2000,” is recruiting a delegation from Chicago’s major foundations to take in our conversation. “I kind of want to seat them separately,” Davis says. “I don’t want to be putting them on the spot—‘What are you going to do?'” But as moderator, he wants to be able to find them in the audience and ask more gently, “What could you do? What in this [economic] environment are you capable of?” Davis adds, “My own view is that there are few more important things they could do for the body politic than assure that good journalism survives in our community.”

It’s nice to think that might be within their powers.

It completely is within their powers, but it’s not … how shall I put this … OKAY AT ALL to be all “what the hell have you done for me lately?” when you haven’t asked anybody to do anything in the first place. You can’t just show up and be all, “Why didn’t you step up?” Well, send me a damn proposal already. One that doesn’t include words like “coopetition.”

What kind of profitability standards are we willing to develop and adhere to in this supposed new world, which of course is just the old world now viewed through the lens of, you know, reality? What kind of answers are we demanding from the people who gutted and skullfucked the news organizations represented by their noble practitioners (most notably the Sun-Times, which owned the last great paper I worked for and whose parent company destroyed it without remorse or redress) or are we just gonna let bygones be bygones and then act surprised when in 20 years it all happens again?

Commenter RAM put it well in a previous journalism-killer thread:

Our small independent weekly chain is a money-maker, just like virtually small weekly chains in areas that are either growing or have at least a stable population base. But over the years, we’ve seen independent chain after independent chain bought out by the big boys, who come in and immediately cut out the things people buy local papers for: Local news coverage, particularly how property tax dollars are spent, which means heavy school and municipal government coverage. After homogenizing the product into some sort of vanilla mess of features and canned columns, they profess to be surprised when the moneymaker they bought starts bleeding red ink and eventually has to be closed down.

So my suggestions: Provide comprehensive local news coverage first and foremost (and that doesn’t mean hiring consultants and their focus groups to tell you what local news is; if you don’t already know what needs to be covered and reported, you’re in the wrong business); offer subscriptions at low rates; make an effort to get your paper to readers the way they want it; and be content with profits that might not match those of some bogus software start-up, but which are enough to keep things moving ahead to long-term success and profits.

Panel might be awfully short if we just skipped straight to that, had it tattooed on everybody’s hand, and called it a day. Might save on room rental, and catering costs.


3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Some More

  1. That’s entirely why the Toronto Star has been thriving all these years. It’s ostensibly a “local” paper, and they do cover Toronto-local news quite a bit, but they’ve also maintained extensive international bureaux for years and years; far more so than any other “local” paper I’ve ever heard of. Why? Because Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, never mind Canada, and a lot of people in their reading audience either come from those places, have relatives who do, or know someone who does. They’ve known who their audience was all along, and have catered to it extensively, and that’s why they may be the best paper in Canada. I mean, shit, instead of recycling the same old crap off the CP wire like everyone else, they actually have, *gasp* real news and feature reporting. (I can’t think of another paper that has an entire running section called “Desi Life” for instance…)

  2. Glad you’re reading. We’re hoping to get this kind of a discussion going. And the panel could certainly use some more momen, people of color, community and ethnic media types. But it’s a little snarky to complain that elders don’t have any “new gen” ideas left, or that just because I’ve not labored in Sam Zell’s office, I don’t know a lot about the news business. A lot of business types left “news” sometime ago as they looked to synergize multiple silos of content thru layers of chennels…and look what that got the trib! As someone who’s labored the past twenty, thirty-five years to get community news out there to folks who could use it–and break even most years wev’ve tried doing it–maybe some of us old fellows will have a couple notions left for all of you to consider. Please come and join the conversation! Thom Clark, Community Media Workshop

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