Sunday, September 14, 2008

Another conference

Another conference of newspaper people trying to figure out how to salvage their trade. Most of the publishers are very puzzled by the internet in general and by how to respond to what it's done to the newspaper industry in particular.

The daily newspaper industry is in a shambles. Now that they are giving away their work product online, without being able to replace lost print ad and circulation revenue online, they're losing their shirts. Their stocks are depreciating. Investors are panicking. They're laying people off in droves.

The weekly community newspapers, on the other hand, still have something of a niche market. We're one of the few places people can turn to as a reliable source of extremely local news. The internet hasn't had the same impact on us as it has on the dailies — yet. So there's conference after conference of weekly publishers trying to figure out how not to end up like the dailies.

Nobody's really got the answer. Maybe because there isn't one.

The scary thing to me (other than the potential loss of job security, of course) is the future of journalism. Journalism — real journalism, good journalism — is one of the cornerstones of a free society. If we lose it — and we ARE losing it, little by little — what happens to our freedom? That's what scares me the most about this state of affairs.

Journalism costs money to do. Good reporters, photographers, researchers, fact-checkers, editors — all of those people need to earn money to live. If there's no income from which to pay them, what happens? We're seeing this already on the national and international scene. There's been a major contraction in the industry. Newspapers that used to deploy reporters and photographers to Washington DC to cover the US government or to places overseas to cover world events aren't doing that any more. So news and information is coming through fewer and fewer sources. That's not healthy. We've yet to see the full effects of this trend. It won't be good for journalism and it won't be good for truth and it won't be good for freedom, here in the US and around the world.

These conferences leave me simultaneously depressed and inspired. Seems impossible, doesn't it? On the one hand there's the doom and gloom state of the newspaper industry. On the other hand, there's an opportunity to meet and learn from journalists like Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times-Union, who led a couple of seminars this weekend, including one on ethics in the newsroom. He reminded me of our mission as journalists.

The fundamentals of journalism:
Seek the truth and report it fully.
Act independently.
Be transparent and accountable.
Minimize harm.

This weekend also presented the opportunity to visit the Newseum, a museum dedicated to news and journalism. That place is an inspiration in itself.

It is said that journalism is "the first draft of history." The Newseum is a place where you can see history as it unfolded, reported by men and women (many of whom lost their lives doing so) who were eyewitnesses to history. The exhibits there (Pulitzer prize-winning photo gallery, the 9/11 gallery, the history of news gallery, the many documentary films shown in various small theaters throughout its six-floors) are moving and awe-inspiring. If you ever visit Washington DC, don't miss this place.

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