Newspapers and other traditional news organizations should embrace social media as a valuable resource, but they need to find a new business model that will ensure their financial stability and future, media experts concluded in a panel discussion on October 24.
Panelists from two start-up, non-profit news organizations discussed “Journalism in the 21st Century” and painted a bleak picture of the current state of traditional print media. But they told a Frick Center audience of more than 100 that good journalism is essential in order for society to make informed decisions.
The panel discussion was the kickoff event of a two-year partnership between the College and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C., to explore and teach new communication technologies and in-depth international reporting. Journalism students and professors from Elmhurst and a half dozen other Chicago-area colleges participated in two days of workshops, seminars and lectures.
“Public service journalism is vital for democracy. Right now we’re trying to figure out how to get people to pay for quality journalism,” said James O’Shea, editor and co-founder of the Chicago News Cooperative, former editor of the Los Angeles Times and former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. “It is important to have good information because that’s how you make good decisions.”
Illustrating the dramatic decline in the ability of newspapers to provide in-depth public service journalism, O’Shea said that when he was managing editor of the Tribune, the paper had nine reporters covering education. Now, he said, the paper has one or two. O’Shea is also the author of the recently published chronicle of the Tribune Company’s decline, The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers.
“Cutting like that is not a strategy for the future,” O’Shea said, though he conceded he has not found a viable alternative to the traditional newspaper business model of reliance on advertising revenue.
The Chicago News Cooperative, launched in 2009, is a non-profit venture that provides Chicago-focused stories for the regional edition of The New York Times and for its own web site. The cooperative hopes eventually to sell its online content to subscribers, but O’Shea said the viability of that approach is uncertain. It currently relies heavily on grants from foundations.
Cuts in editorial content, through the layoff of hundreds of reporters and editors, have been especially damaging to international coverage, said panel member Tom Hundley, senior editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a former Tribune foreign correspondent.
A few major newspapers maintain foreign bureaus, but most have cut back on the number and some, including the Tribune, have eliminated them. But Hundley said he sees “lots of glimmers of hope” for the future, with online publications such as the Global Post and Foreign Policy magazine picking up some of the slack.
Relying on social media and citizen journalists
“The problem is that the economics are completely messed up,” Hundley said. He noted that a series of in-depth stories requiring an independent journalist to spend weeks in a foreign country can cost $20,000 to $25,000, while a publication may only pay $3,000 to publish the stories.
The Pulitzer Center, established in 2006, “is a temporary bridge at the moment” to fill that gap, Hundley said. The organization gives grants to journalists to finance trips abroad, and it helps independent journalists find outlets for their stories. The center also sponsors speaking tours by journalists to college campuses to share their experiences and increase interest in international reporting.
With fewer experienced journalists covering global hot spots such as the Middle East and Africa, traditional media must rely more on social media and “citizen journalists” as news sources, according to panel member Maura Youngman, the Pulitzer Center’s new-media strategist.
Citizen journalists in Tunisia used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to circumvent government censorship during the recent popular uprising, and helped topple the government of the North African country.
“We have a lot more sources now and more ways of getting information” thanks to social media, Youngman said. “I see great hope and possibilities for (traditional media) to have partnerships with the new social media.”
Faculty and students came from Elmhurst and from several other northern Illinois colleges, including Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Northern Illinois University, North Park University, the University of St. Francis and Wheaton College.
“Journalism is still more of a calling than a profession,” said Ron Wiginton, professor of English and adviser to The Leader, in welcoming the panel, “and journalists are still chasing the bad guys and trying to change the world.”
Added Storer H. Rowley, executive director of government and community relations and moderator of the panel discussion, “The central mission of journalism remains what it has always been—how to tell compelling stories today, using both the old school skills and the new media strategies.”
Wiginton and Rowley organized the partnership with the Pulitzer Center, and funding has been contributed from various college sources, including The Leader, the Center for Professional Excellence and the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.
O’Shea sounded an optimistic note for students considering journalism as a profession. Enterprising journalists, can start an online publication at a fraction of the cost of launching a traditional print operation. “There is a lot of freedom about what they can do, a lot of opportunity out there,” he concluded.