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The Trust


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Restoring the Trust
 
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What the News Media Future Will Look Like
A Jay Rosen-led Conversation

Jay Rosen, New York University, Author of the blog PressThink
David Gyimah, Producer and journalist, University of Westminster, UK
Bill Grueskin, Managing editor, Wall Street Journal Online
Chris Nolan, stand-alone online journalist
Craig Newmark, Founder, Craigslist.com

‘I know the title of this conference is Restoring the Trust, but I wonder if it has more to do with restoring the identity and restoring the sense that you as a newspaper or a publication or a weblog, you build an identity with your readers and they thereby build their identity around what you are doing.’
-Bill Grueskin,
Wall Street Journal Online


Direct Feeds From Citizens at the Scene [See David Gyimah’s view of the future at ViewMagazine.tv by visiting his website www.viewmagazine.tv]

Jay Rosen: Okay, so that’s a vision of the future that says it could look like magazine journalism plus broadcast journalism plus web, all sort of working together.

Bill Grueskin, Managing editor, Wall Street Journal Online

Building an Identity With Readers

Bill Grueskin: My vision of the future came to me while on a subway in New York a couple weeks ago.. . on the subway nowadays, you really look people over, and I was watching one woman. . . she had two things in her hand. One was this newspaper called A.M. New York—it’s a very popular free tabloid and the other thing was this stuff, which is called ‘vitamin water’ —do any of you drink vitamin water? She was reading this newspaper like it was the last chapter of The DaVinci Code and she was drinking this stuff like it was the elixir of the gods, and it kind of made me think two things: one was . . .it wasn’t that long ago that people would pay for this [the free tabloid] and get this for free [the costly water] . . . but then what I really thought about was. . . why would anybody pay $2.99 for a bottle of this stuff—okay, 1.99; the profit margin . . .must be—I went and bought one and brought it to my office and I asked people under 30 working for me and I said, what is it about this stuff, and one of the women said, it shows who you are, you drink this, it says something about you. . .what interested me, I thought about it some more, and it used to be that what you read said something about you, that what you read used to really define who you were in many ways. And I say that as editor of a website that is a subscription website.

We have just a little under 750,000 subscribers. One thing I’ve found about the Journal is that, for a lot of people, it is part of their identity. . . . I think that’s been true for a long time about newspapers. . . I know the title of this conference is Restoring the Trust, but I wonder if it has more to do with restoring the identity and restoring the sense that you as a newspaper or a publication or a weblog, you build an identity with your readers and they thereby build their identity around what you are doing.

So when you ask what’s going to get bigger, I think. . . people are going to build their identity around what other people are writing. And yet this is a challenge for the mainstream media guys like me to figure out how are we going to adapt our journalism, and especially our websites in order to enable people to be part of them.

Jay Rosen: We’re going to move right to Chris Nolan, who is in the midst of trying to build her own operation online. When you look at what’s going to happen with the craft that you love, with the world that you’ve been a part of as a journalist, what do you see?

Chris Nolan, Stand-alone online journalist

How People Consume News Has Changed

Chris Nolan: I see a lot of things. . . All right. The one thing I want to start out by saying is, there are a lot of people who read the Wall Street Journal . . . but as someone who wrote for the New York Post for a very long time, I’m here to tell you that there are lots of those people out there too—they just don’t talk about how they used to read the New York Post. And that, my friends, is one of the conundrums of journalism in urban markets.

I see a bunch of things going on, but the main thing I see is probably your worst nightmare, which is that people don’t identify and readers don’t identify with one site, one publication, one place. That they start to surf and surf aggressively, and they move through websites not as you, as newspaper editors or educators of journalists prefer to think of them as these entities, but they sort of clip along, clippety, clippety, because they’re using a technology called RSS, which stands for ‘really simple syndication’. And it allows them to read the headlines the way we in newsrooms have forever read the AP wire. “Oh, that happened? Oh, cool. Okay, we’ve gotta move somebody over there, okay.”

That’s how people outside, who consume and read what we in the newspaper business have been producing for the past twenty years now get their news. It’s a big change. It’s only going to get bigger.

I am building a website that is a collection of voices on the web that is designed to take advantage of this. How am I going to do that? I am hoping that I am going to get some help from big media, because what I’m going to say is, I have voices. My voices are popular. Would you like my popular voices to appear in your not-so-popular newspaper? Perhaps you will become more popular.

It’s a pretty basic strategy, but it’s based on the idea that readers go to voices, and readers go to information that is presented in a new way, because information is ubiquitous. And I don’t see that stopping. I mean, we’re in the midst of it right now, and it is the most frightening thing to people like Bill and the Wall Street Journal and even more so, to the New York Times.

But it’s absolutely enervating to people like me who spent much of their career in places like the New York Post, where it’s like, “Okay, let’s go get ‘em!” So, that’s what I see.

Jay Rosen: Craig, I suspect you were invited here not because you were a journalist or are really doing any journalism yourself, but for what you might know about trust, which is the theme of this conference. So, when you look at where the world is going and where the world of trust online is going, and try to envision the future of your own organization, what are you seeing?

Craig Newmark, Founder, Craigslist.com

Newspapers Once Again as Centers of Community Service Instead of Profit

Craig Newmark: I’m very aware that I’m speaking, in a large respect, with some ignorance because I’m pretty much a dilettante in these matters.. . . one reporter asked if I was the anti-Christ of the print media. . . given the work I do on Craigslist as a customer service rep, fortunately I’ve become real optimistic about people. Combine that with my rich fantasy life and here’s my take on things:

It used to be, from what I’ve read and from what a lot of people in the business have told me, newspapers used to be regarded as a community service.

That’s how we perceive ourselves. We’re not a nonprofit—we’re almost all free, but we are, on paper, a for-profit—and the deal is that, when it comes to newspapers, they used to be perceived primarily as providing the public with a service, even way back in the mid-1700s when pamphlets were the big deal—I guess that’s the earliest form I know of citizen journalism.

Nowadays, from what people who seem to know the news business a lot more than I do tell me, is that newspapers are increasingly perceived as profit centers. So in my optimism, I see this whole movement—that of citizen journalism, that of the destructive economics—as maybe changing the focus back for mainstream news on being community service rather than a profit center. That may not make Rupert Murdoch happy—although I have been impressed by his appearances on The Simpsons.

Putting Some Attitude in the News

Other trends I think I see, especially when I talk to the youth—remember, the most trusted name in news among the young demographics. . . is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This may not be music to one’s ears but you know, he takes chances, he tries to tell the truth. This makes a big difference. I do think news with an attitude will become more and more important.

A couple weeks ago I was in London and for the first time, reading the British press seriously, the Guardian, stuff like that. These guys have attitudes, they’re biased, you know what their biases are, and they’re often smartasses, with which I can identify, and the deal is that I think that’s going to be a big trend in news.

I think in our country we’ve had an experiment in what’s called objectivity, but Dan [Gillmor] over there wrote this essay—I think it’s called “The End of Objectivity”—and I think we’re going to replace that with something which I guess is just plain fairness. I think that will change things.

Chris Nolan: One reason the UK press is the way it is, is because it’s so competitive—I mean, how many papers were you reading?

Craig Newmark: Well, Chris has a good point and maybe the UK press is competitive because different papers have distinct attitudes. . . when any of us read stuff or listen to the news, we’re often looking for attitude, for point of view, something which isn’t just bland.

And sometimes you know, when someone is reporting the news. . . well, the best example is the White House Press Corps, where I’ve spoken to people and they say they know they’re being lied to, but they can’t say it. I don’t know why, but maybe that’s the illusion of objectivity. . .

Using Technology to Post the Most Trustworthy Version

There are new technologies that are going to promote these trends. People are starting to develop now, in the sense of getting funding, websites which will do things. . . people are trying to build the mechanisms, which will extract out of the news, what are the really big stories that are happening, and what are the most trustworthy versions of those stories. I’m hoping they also add follow-up to that. . . sometimes I see really big stories that are in the news one day, and then disappear the next. Those are happening, and frankly, me personally, I’m considering a microscopic investment in one of them. Just to make that perfectly clear, that’s Craig talking, not Craigslist talking. . . .

And finally, technology changes. My instincts tell me that in a few years we may have these little itty-bitty flexible displays come online, that you can actually roll up. If those start becoming integrated into cell phones, that’s going to change the news business somehow, and that kind of thing may catch us all by surprise.

Questions from the audience:

Q: Craig, I’ve seen you quoted as saying your aim is not to destroy the conventional base of newspapers, but you can see how, to a degree, that’s happening. . . you’ve said you’d consider including quality journalism or endowing a journalism institution. . . which, if any of those, is true?

Craig Newmark: Right now, we don’t know what we’re doing, frankly. . . something needs to be done, it’s incumbent upon us, so we’re exploring things. For example, I fantasize about—personally, not Craigslist—sending money to the Center for Public Integrity or the Center for Investigative Reporting. . . . the deal is, maybe my role in this personally is just to make noise, accelerate the movement. . . and then maybe I just stop talking then, because I’m out of my depth. . . there is a possibility of seeing a personal announcement in the near future of supporting one activity out there. . .

How Craigslist Built a Sense
of Community. . . And What
Newspapers Can Learn

Q: Craig, what can you tell journalists, from your experience building Craigslist, about building a sense of community at their papers?

And Bill, what does the average reporter at your online WSJ think regarding building community/trust online? What does your newsroom think about citizen journalism?

Craig Newmark: Without trying to, we feel we’ve built a culture of trust and goodwill—a lot of it has to do with turning over control of our site, for the most part, to the people who use it. . . a lot of it has been through the obvious attitude that we have when it matters. For example, a lot of people have noticed that when something bad happens—there are some bad guys out there—we get real passionate about the Bill of Rights kind of issues. And again, we just try to turn over more and more power and control over to people and to provide, oh, unthinkable levels of customer service. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist.

Jay Rosen: What if, to produce more trust online, newspaper organizations were required to turn over more control to users?

Chris Nolan: Newspaper organizations could do what Craigslist does, which is to let people write their own classified ads online. And they would find that the cost of a classified ad would be substantially reduced.

There’s no magic to what this guy has done. I know you guys are all scared of him, but he’s a really nice guy!

Bill Grueskin:. . . first of all, most reporters wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about, citizen journalism. . . . One of the things I’ve wondered about is whether the collective wisdom of citizens can be utilized to do journalism. . .part of it is, somehow, capturing the energy and wit and wisdom of the people in your town in a way that is a benefit to everybody. Newspapers could do it right now, and if they don’t, then Craig will do it in a couple of years.

Jay Rosen: There are start-ups based on this premise. . . BackFence.com is the most well-known; there are others who are trying to get to that level of information. . .

Where Does Traditional Journalism Stand?

Q: Does the traditional practice of journalism as we have known it—disinterested research, verification, peer-reviewed—have any place in the future of the news media? All I’ve heard about tonight is talk about content, technology, the like. I’m feeling a little confused.

David Gyimah: . . . There are people who are finding new ways, new discourses, getting in touch with communities, and there’s a rearguard battle from big institutions who can see them being shipped away and are either beginning to re-evaluate in the way they teach or are going back to basics. . . that’s exactly what the BBC’s up to. The BBC, after the Hutton inquiry and the weapons of mass destruction, has gone back to basics, big time. In other words, we will not print a story until we evaluate and get a third source and get a fifth source. . . to them, it’s all good journalism. . . . As far as the BBC goes, there’s a very defined way of doing things, and [they say] if you guys want to go off and build communities, that’s great—we’ve got our way, and that’s the standard way.

Jay Rosen: I believe there’s definitely a future for verified, reliable information. It’s always going to be important to a certain group of people, especially those who can pay for it. Journalism that existed in that way, before there was any mass press, will go on. There’s always going to be people who need reliable, verifiable information to trade with, to make important decisions with. Those people will get it.

It’s whether there’s going to be that kind of verifiable, reliable information available to the larger public—that is what is in doubt. And I don’t think that that’s in any sense guaranteed. We don’t know.

Craig Newmark: The whole idea of having systems which allow both professional fact-checkers but also just people in the public who know stuff—that kind of stuff is being evolved and built now, and that’s a big deal. If you get hold of Fabrice over there [Fabrice Florin, NewsTrust] he can address a particular effort going on. There are others. I’ve even spoken to the guys at FactCheck.org about how they expand their mission. That’s not to be confused with FactCheck.com. . . these mechanisms are evolving, they are a really big deal, and I’d like to see a lot more of FactCheck.

Putting the Trends in Context

Chris Nolan: One of the problems with the conversation we’re having now about the news business and what’s going on online is that there’s almost too much to talk about. And that people are getting their trends confused. There’s a bad economic trend in the newspaper and big media business. There’s an explosion of interest in what’s going on online. Many of these things are coming together, and the side effects and the ripple effects are uncomfortable for people who have been used to doing things a certain way. That has a lot to do with the way the Internet is affecting all of us. So, when you start to think about what the future of journalism is, maybe it’s worth looking back and thinking about how much has changed in terms of how we’ve used technology in the past ten years. . . if you think about that in relation to the news business, I find it helps me drop these arguments into place a bit more cogently.


 

I don’t know how many of you saw the piece by Jack Shafer on Slate that he posted at the end of the week on Friday. He basically said: “I’m beginning to doubt the trust and credibility of the mainstream reader.” It’s a fun piece to read, and I think he puts a finger on something, perhaps inadvertently, we ought to be thinking about today, and that is our ambiguous relationship to the people we serve. We don’t know whether to blame them, serve them, ignore them, or how we ought to be treating the people who populate the communities we serve. We don’t know whether to think of them as clients, as customers, or as citizens in the narrowly defined Black’s Law /AP stylebook version or in the more expansive version. . . I think that’s the probably the central question that underlies what we’ll be talking about: who these people are, what do we think about them, what room are we going to make for them in our work lives, are we going to treat them as our peers, as our superiors, or as our inferiors. I think, thematically, we’ll be exploring many dimensions of that.

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