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Finding the Future of Journalism by Asking the Right Questions



We have three days to figure out the future of journalism.

It's a tall order, to be sure. But if anyone can tackle it, it may be the unique collection of bloggers, print reporters, broadcasters, academics, activists and visionaries who have come here to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for a unique conference held by the school's Media Giraffe Project: Democracy and Independence -- Sharing News and Politics in a Connected World.

And if last night's opening session was any indication, the road to the futre will be a sprawling, disorganized, inclusive, incisive, occasionally combative struggle to meet our digital future while cleaving to the standards and craft of journalism's past.

"Everyone with a laptop can get into our act," lamented featured speaker Helen Thomas at the conference's opening discussion -- a panel/town hall meeting dinner that asked "How will journalism stay relevant?" "Bloggers are not necessarily jounalists. The changes are revolutionary, but that doesn't mean we need to sacrifice who we are and what we strive to be."

Led by journalism iconoclast Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine and Vin Crosbie of Corante Media Hub, the opening discussion was as inspiring and frustrating as most conference discussions -- veering from the Same Old Arguments ("The key to the relevance of mainstream journalism is good stories," said Boston Globe editor Marty Baron early on) to Off Topic Harangues (this being a Northeastern college, several questioners from the audience demanded to know why journalists didn't cover the 2000 election scandal, 2004 election scandal and the Bush national guard stories).

But buried in the predictable stuff, were some powerful ideas about coping with the disruptive effects of digital technology, an increasingly elusive audience and an overtly manipulative government.

Key quotes:

"For too long, people have been disconnected from democracy," said Larry McDermott, publisher of The Republican newspaper in Springfield, Mass. "The way you connect them to democracy, is you give them a voice. What we have to do, is look for opportunities to be a connector -- because people want to be connected."

"If (journalism's future) can't be about verifiable facts which hold the powerful accountable, we are truly going to waste three days," said Ellen Hume, a professor at UMass-Boston. "My students have been taught that media is music and movies...weapons of mass distraction...I used to joke that the news will be reduced to web site for people who don't get the jokes on the Daily Show."

"I think news organizations are turning themselves into entertainment organizations to reach out to a public increasingly turning away from them -- especially young people," said John McManus of

As usual, Jay Rosen of New York University offered some of the most cogent ideas (see his super egg-headed PressThink blog here), noting that newspaper circulation scandals were a form of denial, staving off the readership decline fueled by digital media by pretending it wasn't happening. Noting that the internet has turned every news outlet into "a receiving device as much as a sending device," he spoke of finding ways to turn the expertise of groups of non-journalists in the community into investigative journalism.

It struck me, that the ground we're charting is so new, we struggle to even ask the right questions. Digital media has thrown so much into the air - who are consumers, who are reporters, where are advertisers -- that traditional journalists are having a tough time wrapping themselves around all the change. (Jay has an attention-getting piece in the Washington Post, talking about the new balance of power between consumer and producer, and the "people formerly known as the audience."

Jarvis, a rail-thin, evangelically energized advocate for reinventing journalism in the digital age, struck the most hopeful note early on: "I hope this conference isn't about complaining. Or about the past. Or 'us' versus 'them'. It's about success stories. There's invention, creativity -- bringing new things to journalism, which it sorely needs. Journalism needs re-invention in a world where there are so many possiblities. So let's have at it."

I'll let you know, through this space and in the newspaper, how it all works out. (See some parts of the conference webcast live here; I'll try to wave if I land on camera)

Cynicism About N-Word Earns Me a Shout Out

Those of you blog yourselves know there are times when your work is a stream of consciousness trail directly from your subconscious to your keyboard. I think that's what happened when I urged readers to get over the n-word controversy, and now I've been called on it by my good friend, Richard Prince.

Richard referenced my blog in writing about a story in the Washington Post's series about black men, in which a man recounts how prison guards used the word nigger on him so much, his own name began to feel alien to him. With incidents like this in the world, he argued, surely the harm of the n-word is apparent and obvious.

But I still remain ambivalent about a word which means so much to black people. Yees, hip hop culture has made the term more ubiquitous -- in the same way people seem to sling the word bitch around much more casually than ever before. But that is always the case with language, and denying our people's conflicted, inconsistent relationship with this word by trying to ban it will only camouflage the issue, I fear.

Sorry Richard. But I think it is time for black people to accept that we will always use the word differently than white people -- and we will always use the word.

Got $150? Then You Can See CBS' New Anchor Early

That's the price tag for tickets to the July 10 fundraiser at Ruth Eckerd Hall starring CBS' new game-changer. She's expected to drop in for a VIP reception, a speech at the fundraiser and some quality time with a handpicked crowd of 80 folks giving her feedback on Tampa Bay area issues. It's an inspired bit of publicity -- reminiscent of the lower-key affiliate tour her former colleague Bryant Gumbel undertook when he took over CBS Early Show many years ago.

Here's hoping it leads to a better result.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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