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Reasons to be optimistic about journalism in 2009

Greetings, everyone!

I’m back after a bit of a hiatus for personal and professional reasons. But today marks my return to regular blogging here. And I wanted to start by posting on a topic that I promised to address several weeks back before I got sidetracked: Why I’m optimistic about journalism in 2009. The reasons for that optimism relate to my personal circumstances and to the larger events driving the evolution of this industry.

Look, I have as much right to be as gloomy as anyone who works in newspapers. We’re looking at the possible collapse of several important local newspapers this year. Layoffs are rising again, and debt defaults seem to loom everywhere.

I don’t to even leave my office to know about such issues. Things aren’t looking so great at my day job at the San Jose Mercury News. Last month, our corporate parent announced that it was requiring all of us to take a one-week unpaid furlough before the end of March. That comes amid current negotiations with our guild to cut our pay by 15 percent. Throw in increased costs for benefits, and most of us are looking at an effective 20 percent pay cut this year. And that would be best-case scenario. Worst case, of course, is that there are more furloughs and more layoffs.

So, there is plenty of gloom to go around the news biz these days. And if you’re inside a news organization, both traditional and online, this promises to be a brutal year as advertising takes a big hit. There are no end of posts you can find dissecting what newspapers did wrong, how they reached a dead end, how endless cuts are affecting the quality of journalism. As far as I’m concerned, most of those post-mortems are pointless. What’s done is done and rehashing the past is not helping us move forward.

So what’s there to feel optimistic about in 2009? Plenty.

The search for solutions must begin with wild experimentation. Not only is there growing consensus about the need for fundamental change. Even better, there is tremendous momentum building around new ideas, new news and information start-ups, and support for emerging entrepreneurs.

I could spend days putting together an exhaustive list of exciting projects that point to the frenetic activity in this space. But let me just point to a few gathered from headlines and blog posts.

I’ll start with the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge Grant program, which is now in its third year (and which funded the Next Newsroom Project). I served as a mentor to several folks submitting applications. Even the ones that didn’t make it past the initial rounds showed tremendous thought and an entrepreneurial bent that speaks well of our future.

But there’s so much more. On the academic front, USC Annenberg is offering a week-long News Entrepreneur Boot Camp in May to teach start-up skills to folks hoping to get a journalism venture off the ground. In March, The Poynter Institute and the Journalism That Matters Collaborative are co-hosting a conference on the New Roles for Journalists. And over at the University of Missouri, the Reynolds Journalism Institute is accepting applications for its year-long fellowship program that brings in journalists and academics for a year to incubate new journalism ideas. And of course, at Stanford University, the prestigious Knight Fellowships Program has been reinvented to focus on new ideas and entrepreneurs.

I’m also heartened to see the conversation move past just the newsroom, and onto the question of the business model, which is where it belongs.

Though it gives some people fits, the debate has been renewed about whether we should be asking people to pay for journalism. (My answer: No. But I’ll elaborate on that some other time). We have Spot.Us exploring community funded journalism. We have the City University of New York establishing a new center to study New Business Models for News. And from the Reynolds Institute, Bill Densmore is spearheading development of an Information Valet Project, an attempt to create new framework for advertising and personal information to sustain journalism. Finally, Len Witt at Kennesaw State University just got a $1.5 million grant to create The Center for Sustainable Journalism.

That’s a pretty heavy academic list. But it’s an important indicator as to where energy and resources are going. Solutions won’t come overnight. They’ll require deep thinking and research. So this is important.

But it certainly doesn’t end there. Let’s look outside the ivory towers.

It seems there are too many news-related to start-ups to count these days. There’s the Public Press, Michael Stoll’s effort to start an ad-free newspaper in San Francisco. And last month, GlobalPost launched, offering a new model for international reporting. If you didn’t read about the work that Medill’s Crunchberry team was doing in Cedar Rapids, you should. And definitely check out News Mixer, which grew out of the Crunchberry project.

And despite the grim economics, even big papers are doing some bold things. The New York Times later this month is holding its first API seminar to discuss how it’s opening up its news platform to allow developers to build applications on it.

And there are countless grassroots blogging networks being started by former mainstream journalists. For me, this is proof that there is in fact a strong entrepreneurial spirit among journalists that has largely been squashed by management and owners. Most of these folks being forced out of newsrooms are retreating into different industries public relations. But many others are walking right out and launching start-ups. I’m sure the J-Lab New Voices grant program will be overwhelmed with applications from new and traditional journalists looking to start community news organizations.

There’s even good news on the public service and investigative front. Of course, Pro Publica has gotten tons of attention. But I’m also excited about the expanding universe of non-profits like theSunlight Foundation and Stimulus Watch. Now, if we could just get more of these types of project going at the local and micro levels.

I’m not trying to be pollyanaish here. This is going to be a grim year in newsrooms. Many great people are going to lose jobs. Many communities are going to feel the ebb of news coverage. Even with all the digital tools available to us, there are real needs to be filled, real voids being created. I live in Oakland, Ca. And let me tell you that this is one of the most under-covered big cities in the United States. The skeleton crew at the Oakland Tribune are doing their best, but there is an enormous void of information about the most basic things, and that doesn’t even to get at the kinds of corruption that may be occurring but that we have no one to explore.

At the same time, the decline of traditional news organizations is leaving behind fertile ground for news start-ups and entrepreneurs, big and small. As I’ve thought about our current news landscape, I’ve been thinking a lot about a book I read way back in college for an early modern European history class. The book was called, “The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Rev… by Christopher Hill.

Hill examines a number of radical movements that emerged during the English Revolution from 1645-1653. He concludes that the overall chaos in society during that period weakened the hold institutions such as the church and government had over people’s lives. The result was a freedom to explore radical and subversive ideas and movements around how society was structured, sexual relations, and religion. It was a radical moment that makes the social revolution of the 1960s in the U.S. look timid by comparison. Of course, eventually Oliver Cromwell came along and squashed most of these radical movements.

Still, I think this is what is happening now. As the traditional media companies lose their dominance over local communities, it’s creating space for the burst of experimentation we’re seeing. And those experiments, in turn, are nudging at least some traditional newsrooms into taking more fundamental steps to change. It’s quite possible that as we move through this year, the increasingly grim economics may finally force some newspaper owners to push for the kind of radical changes that are long overdue.

Yes, this will be a long, messy process. There will be many failures, wrong turns, and two-steps-forward-one-step-back moments. People will get hurt. But there’s no denying the tremendous energy around these efforts to create something new.

On a personal level, I’m trying to fight any sense of despair by trying to find ways to explore this new terrain and push forward. First, I count myself lucky to still have my day job at the Mercury News as a business columnist. It’s still a great gig, despite the diminished resources and newsroom.

But in addition to that work, last month I agreed to become and advisor to Allvoices.com, a global citizen media start-up based in San Francisco. Next week, I’m going to be attending a Technology Tools Workshop offered by the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

And last month, I agreed to become a consultant with an esteemed international media consulting group, Innovation. While many U.S. newsrooms have failed to invest in change, it’s a very different story outside of the U.S. In fact, newspapers in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia have been building new newsrooms and re-structuring old ones to become true, multi-media organizations. I contributed to the upcoming version of Innovations in Newspapers 2009, an annual report that Innovations produces for the World Association of Newspapers and includes an updated version of their model newsroom.

Yes, it’s a lot of juggling. But it’s kept me focused and invigorated. And excited about whatever comes next.

I’d love to hear from other folks. What makes you excited about journalism in 2009? What has you inspired? What new things are you planning to try this year?


5 Responses

  1. With all the doom and gloom out there, it’s nice to see someone looking at the opportunities being created by all the upheaval in the news biz. I try to balance the bad news by telling my students that all this change is creating new opportunities for young journalists … if they have some tech skills and are willing to take chances and experiment.It’s also great to see so many universities getting involved in trying to figure out what’s next. And I’m glad to see you take note of Micheal Stoll’s SF-based project. We’re proud that he also teaches at SJSU.

  2. I think another major business opportunity in the news media market is going to be around the “Trust Adviser” concept you’ve talked about prior. With all the independent news rooms out there, someone has got to step up and develop some kind of credentialing base that journalists get qualified through.

  3. Chris, this is just a fantastic post. You are right about the exciting start-ups springing up and the academic commitment to furthering journalism. Another interesting project is one that I’m involved with right now called Breaking Tweets http://www.breakingtweets.com. Just started it less than two weeks ago and it has already gotten hits from 48 countries. It collects world news and personalizes it through geo-based tweets on Twitter — I call it “hyperlocal gone global.” DePaul University is helping me with the project and it has been a blast so far.

  4. You named just about every reason I can think of to be excited about the future of journalism, with one slight omission: Speaking of Oakland, and speaking of Berkeley, I am in love with the hyperlocal news projects that the grad students are piecing together, all of which can be found at localreport.org. oaklandnorth.net is one of them, and I hope they’re able to plug in the gaps of coverage that the Tribune can’t get to.

  5. Chris, glad to see that by citing a lot of examples out there of innovation that you’re pointedly not siding with the techno-nihilist gang that would see the “MSM” upturned without assuring that there’s anything credible to replace them. There’s a lot of bold new thinking amid the clamor of gloom and doom. I’m excited to read the March/April edition of Columbia Journalism Review, for which I contributed an essay. The whole issue pretends to look back from five years in the future to the key innovations that changed the media landscape for the better in 2009.

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