Fringe realists seek to remake media

It’s back to the newsroom today after spending the last four days immersed in a gathering of about 150 journalists, technologists, educators and entrepreneurs at the Journalism that Matters (JTM) conference held in Silicon Valley. Chris Peck, a newspaper editor from Tennessee and one of the conveners of the meeting, opened the gathering Wednesday evening by talking about how, before the invention of matches, people would carry around embers in a box and use this spark for fire-starting. What embers will I carry away?

Let’s start with the sense of community that comes from reconnecting with old professional friends like J-school teacher Charlotte-Anne Lucas and web publisher Tom Murphy, not to mention the many new friends and kindred spirits with whom I hope to hatch future schemes and dreams. But if I had to pick three take-aways they would be:

  • looking for ways to support journalism in the free-for-all environment of the web;
  • the recognition among media reformers of the need to cooperate; and
  • - the unlikelihood and difficulty of achieving this owing to wildly differing notions of what journalism is, should be or can do.The focus on finances was evident throughout the four days of the JTM conference that shared its Saturday finale with a meeting of the Bay Area chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “We’re blowing up the wall, we have to,” said Cynthia Gorney, who moderated a lively SPJ panel discussion on a search for business models — a phrase journalists once disdained. In truth the main business model that has thus far emerged for journalism, other than advertising, is the tin cup. “We’ve heard a lot about the public radio funding model,” said Bill Densmore, another organizer of the JTM conference. Forder newspaper editor David Talbot, who led the founding team at Salon.com, talked about trying to raise $40 a year from 100,000 people to get half the funding for a plan-on-the-drawing-board to create a new, publicly-financed newsroom in San Francisco. “If you build it they will come,” Talbot predicted.Attendees at these overlapping events were convinced that the public is hungry for serious conversation on the issues that rule their lives. San Francsisco journalist Rose Aguilar told the SPJ gathering of interviewing people from small towns in her post 2004-election trip through the so-called Red States, and finding them eager to talk about health care, the economy and Iraq. Aguilar, who attended church and conducted interviews outside WalMart parking lots, said “People are sick” of simplistic and divisive mass media coverage. And what will reformers offer in place of today’s fare? A bewlidering array of niche interests, in keeping with the times, and a challenging array of definitions of what constiutes journalism. Among the JTM conferees, for instance, were two Muslim women hoping to launch a web site devoted to exploring the unknown dimensons of Islam. Another attendee was a J-school prof hoping to build a network of 100 journalists to go into underserved communities to become their news-gatherers. A few attendees were what I would consider to be political actitivists, to whom words and images were tools or weapons to stimulate specific actions. Such a drift made me extremely uncomfortable. Less provocative at least to my way of thinking were the unapologetic idealists who simply argued that media should focus on positive stories of people changing the world instead of the present if-t-bleeds-it-leads sensibility.I came away from the event convinced that if this reform movement is going anywhere but to its next gathering that the people on the outside of the system will have to agree on something more than that they don’t like what’s going on inside the system. I say this of course as an ill-tempered reporter from a middling metropolitan daily who feels as if the only thing holding together the reform community is antipathy to mass media. There needs to be more common ground because I did indeed hear in many different discussions the same yearning bordering on a recognition of necessity that cooperation and affiliation would be essential to helping this smoldering reform effort catch fire. For those not in attendance this was an unconference (thanks Kaliya Hamlin it was fun!). That means each morning people created topic for workshops they wanted to conduct and Michael Melillo, a New Jersey software executive, convened one topic for people interested in forming a federation of independent media. I joined that circle and worked with a handful of others, including Persephone Miel of Harvard’s Berkman Center, on an off throughout the rest of Friday. I wouldn’t say anything was decided except that the combinatory impulse was strong and therefore effort was worth more work but at a Friday evening gathering called by Tom Stites, an important voice was added to the chorus for combination: citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor talked about forming cooperatives, like food coops, in this emerging reform movement.

    This was the first time I had attended a media reform conference, and I paid my own way (unlike the eight editorial staffers sent by the competing Media News including Suzanne Bohan and Chris O’Brien) so I had a pretty high threshhold for satisfaction. I found enough encouragement, especially in the federation topic, to warrant my attendance in the next in the series of these sessions, something called NewPamphleteers.org in June. By the way, this would be a good time to note that inconsistent branding is inconsistent with doing business and the tendency of these media reform things to pop up under different names like a game of literary whack-a-mole makes it all the more difficult to get any momementum behind any idea.

    Which brings me to my closing thought — this reform movement desperately needs some baseline definition of journalism other than it-aint-the-mass-media-variety. Former newspaper editor Geneva Overholser, whose “Manifesto for Change” launched this particular sect of media reformer, took an off-the-cuff stab at such a definition in her appearance at Saturday’s SPJ event. Journalism, she said, has to be about “verification, transparency, accountability.” That a good concise mantra with which to start what I think is the necessary stage of branding how the new journalism is going to distinguish and define itself.