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Talking journalism, media with David Fanning of 'Frontline,' Billy Mays of 'Pitchmen'



Davidfanning While Simon Cowell was using his power to save a singer from ejection on American Idol -- Matt Giraud? Really? -- I was facing a crowd of about 100 people in St. Petersburg wondering what was going to happen to the news media they love.

The occasion was a visit from Frontline executive producer David Fanning, which WEDU-Ch. 3 used as an excuse to convene a panel of local journalists for a discussion on the state of the industry. I joined fellow Times writer Susan Taylor Martin, WTVT-Ch. 13 investigative reporter Doug Smith, WEDU-Ch. 3 producer Spencer Briggs and moderator Florida This Week host Rob Lorei at the Palladium for a bracing discussion on our future.

During the talk, I tried to balance gloom about the death of a type of journalism we've known for many years with excitement over the birth of something new. Yes, it's depressing that there are stories we're missing because we don't have enough staff or can't spare the dollars; but it's exciting to walk into the Golden Globes telecast with a point-and-shoot camera and a laptop, coming out with a night's worth of entertaining Twitter tweets, several blog posts and a newspaper story in which I did everything except write the headline.

Fanning was a surprising and welcome advocate for embracing new technology and the opportunity it provides, telling stories of how Frontline was putting longer excerpts from the interviews for its documentaries online in 1995, before many other outlets were willing. Now, you can browse the Frontline/World web site, which features many Frontline documentaries and extended interviews too long to fit in finished films.

Martin talked about struggling to take photos herself during a recent trip to Vietnam and how fellow writer Kris Hundley used a grant from the International Center for Journalists to report a series on medical testing in India that might not have been affordable otherwise.  Smith talked about pushing hard to tell stories which eventually freed a trucker wrongfully convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

I spoke of how we are in an odd conundrum; technology is making this kind of work easier than ever. More information is available in more databases, anyone can take high-definition video with handheld cameras, every major news organization has web sites with blogs, multimedia components and a multitude of outlets for getting every piece of the story process to the audience.

But we are having a tougher time earning money on our audience and investigative journalism often takes so much time that news organization have less ability to undertake it.

Deggans-and-mays  After two hours of such enlightened conversation, I headed over to Aquaknox restaurant at the Westin Rocky Point for the premiere party of Billy Mays' Discovery Channel series Pitchmen.

By the time I got there the actual screening was over, but Mays and his partner Anthony Sullivan were still entertaining guests -- including Discovery Channel executives and infomercial titans -- at the restaurant's outdoor patio, which is outfitted like a hip, South Beach nightspot. 500 people packed the place to get a glimpse of a local guy gone very, very national.

Just a further example of how wide the divide can be in  media these days. And why its so much fun to be the guy who gets to cover most of it.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:57pm]


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