Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New America Forum: More Takeaways

One of the big, underlying questions the New America Foundation’s forum, Who Pays for the News?, was whether newspapers are in their death throes or merely are going through an existential transformation similar to radio’s metamorphosis following the advent of television.

Against that backdrop, several of the panelists offered their thoughts on what is being lost as newspapers around the country cut staff or close. A sampling:

* Institutional gravitas. Alex Jones of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard said newspapers are community institutions that are cannot be replaced by any number of bloggers or journalism startups. His case in point: the priest sexual abuse scandal covered by the Boston Globe. The same stories had been covered previously by alternative media, he noted, but were largely ignored by the community – and the Archdiocese of Boston – until the Globe dived in.

* News judgment. Mark Paul of New America said another loss is the “aggregating function of newspapers.” Paul suggested that a front page is more than a collection of random news items; it represents a professional judgment as to what is worthy of public attention.

* Professional standing. James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic, offered that the pressure to give away content could put permanent, downward pressure on salaries, returning journalism to its “scrappier” of the first half of the 20th century. The period from 1950 until recent years, when journalism paid middle-class wages, may prove to be an anomaly, he said.

The closest the panel came to a genuine debate was over the question of whether the culture and practices of journalism - source development, shoe-leather reporting, aggressive fact-checking, etc. - would survive the transition to digital.

Maxine Teller, a social media strategy consultant, offered the blogging-centric view that the online society, in a collective enterprise, would succeed in weeding out misinformation.

But Jones, whose background is in newspapers, shot down that idea, noting that urban myths continue to flourish on the Internet. "I think it's a theory that doesn't work," he said. "Bloggers are not about reporting. And reporting is the essential discipline of journalism."

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