Picture this: The Society of Professional Journalists hosts a community discussion about the potential death of the San Francisco Chronicle, with panelists including Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann and (allegedly) City Supervisors President David Chiu ... and they can't even fill a small city library auditorium on a weeknight.
If this had been a meeting about American Apparel trying to open a branch in the Mission? Lines out the door.
It gets worse than that
Not only was the stage crowded with panelists who are exclusively involved with journalism in the Bay Area, but virtually everyone in the audience was also a journalist or blogger.
There is no clearer evidence, sadly, that the demise of journalism is a subject which only journalists are talking about, to other journalists, in the media. This is ironic -- because one of the things that members of the media think, at least according to the media panel at the journalism forum, is that journalism is failing because it has spent too much time talking to other journalists in the media.
Whatever they say is killing journalism, the real cause of death is lethal irony. It's a post-modern post-mortem.
Over a century ago, Oscar Wilde described "the essence of journalism" as "to have no ideas and being able to express them." That, fortunately, was not this panel's problem: There were ideas aplenty. Here were some of the best moments (note that most quotes are paraphrases to some extent):
• David Weir, founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting: "Don't blame the internet for journalism's demise. The Internet is not a choice, it is a fact: It is a technical and historical reality."
• Weir again, pointing out that if the Chronicle isn't hiring enough staff to do real investigative reporting, then no investigative reporting will be lost if the Chronicle folds.
• A questioner from the audience suggests that the best way to measure the Chronicle's success is by how many of our obviously corrupt city officials it helps land in jail. Hell yeah!
• A panel member points out that any of the city's major papers, or alternative weeklies for that matter, could have developed Craigslist first, and owned it, if they'd just been paying attention to what their readers wanted.
• Social entrepreneur Tom Murphy points out that much of the newspaper industry's troubles spring from the fact that the big papers went on crazy leveraged acquisition binges that they couldn't really afford. Now they're hugely in debt. If not for that, many of them would be fine.
• Martin Reynolds, the editor of the Oakland Tribune, points out that newspapers have been so profitable for so long that an extremely change-resistant culture developed within them. That culture is changing, but probably not fast enough.
• Martin Reynolds, again, notes that established news organizations are actually more accountable than social networks, independent blogs, or start-ups with distributed ownership, because there's actually a person in charge who you can talk to and who (if you're at all reasonable) wants to make you happy.
• Carl Hall of the Chronicle, finally making the inevitable reference to Joseph Schumpeter, tells the crowd "Read a book!"
Here are some of the worst moments:
• Moderator Rose Aguilar asked union rep and long time Chronicle reporter Hall "How are you feeling right now?"
No wonder the media is dying.
• Former Chronicle writer Louis Freedberg says that he wishes all this criticism of the Chronicle had come up earlier, before the bad times. Why did people wait until a crisis to let the Chronicle know that there were things about it they didn't like?
Really, Louis? Really? Why do you think Randy Shaw began Beyond Chron? Hell, why do you think Bruce Brugmann founded the Guardian 40 goddamn years ago? If somebody founds an alternative weekly paper expressly to address issues that the city's daily papers aren't touching, and lots of people read it ... that's not a vote of confidence.
• Hall says that local journalism would die without the Chronicle because their reporters are the only ones covering meetings.
You could almost feel a ripple pass through the crowd at this point, as representatives from the city's major blogs and alternative papers ... some of whom do truly excellent work ... were dismissed by the very people whose jobs they had come out to try and help save.
• Aguilar asks Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig, the news editor of the nonprofit Public Press, what the top story on their Web site was today. Fitzhugh-Craig replies "This meeting."
• Some guy with a blog asks a question in which he tells the panel how original his blog is, and wonders why more people aren't doing original things like that.
• David Weir, describing a source of good journalism out there, says "Blogs, wonderful blogs!" in a really, really, creepy way. Don't accept candy from him on Halloween.
But I have to admit that though he barely spoke, the man who was most on point last night was the Guardian's publisher, Bruce Brugmann.
Brugmann was the only one who pointed out, correctly, what it is that major newspapers can do that a thousand blogs never will.
It's not provide good journalism or great writing: Blogs can certainly do that, Brugmann acknowledged, and already do. And in the future, they'll probably do even more of it.
Granted (and I'm NOT paraphrasing anything Brugmann said at this point) that all this great writing will be buried in shit; an endless supply of impenetrable excrement from a million other blogs that will be impossible to wade through and reach the good stuff. Granted. But it'll be there. Reporting and writing to knock your socks off will be there.
No, Brugmann said (and now I'm back to paraphrasing him): What a million small-to-midsized blogs can't do is serve as an adequate government or corporate watchdog. They can try, but they fail.
He's completely right. I've seen it a hundred times - every journalist has. A blogger gets a story, a good one, and tries to raise hell with it ... and the powerful people he's exposing ignore him because he's just a blogger. If you don't command a critical mass of an audience -- it doesn't have to be a "newspaper" exactly, but if you don't reach a large, mainstream, crowd -- then the powerful will feel free to ignore you.
Legitimate public records requests will get buried. Phone calls won't be returned; facts will be denied with bald-faced lies; officials who talk will be threatened with dismissal ... and their bosses will get away with it. Why? Because if you're not the nightly news or the morning paper, not enough people notice what you have to say to make anyone worry.
That's what we'll be missing if the Chron goes under: Nobody in this town will have the clout to make the mayor's office answer for anything, let alone big business. The work performed by a thousand small blogs may be exceptional, but to be effective a watchdog has to be a big dog. If there's not at least one news medium that everybody reads ... there's no watchdog.
That's why Brugmann, probably the longest-term Chronicle critic of them all, is so intent on saving the thing. That's the point that the techno-utopians, with their dreams that every citizen can be a journalist and every journalist can be a king, are missing: The medium IS the message, and size matters.
For there to be journalism, there must be gatekeepers -- whatever the venue.
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