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April 13, 2010, noon

“The 24/7 News Cycle”: David Carr, Arianna Huffington, and Mark Russell debate the future at ASNE

Earlier this morning, David Carr, Arianna Huffington, and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell gathered to discuss “The 24/7 News Cycle: New Opportunities, New Pressures.” The panel had, surprisingly, a more elegiac tone at the outset than some of the previous events at this week’s “NewsNow Ideas Summit“; near the start of the conversation, Carr mentioned starting as The New York Times’ media columnist during a time when mass layoffs at papers and other media organizations were already the norm. “For a while I was thinking, ‘Does this end with me typing my own name into a sentence about layoffs?'” he said.

Now, though, at least according to the panel, things are turning around. Despite the recognition of context, optimism — tempered by pragmatism — was the talk’s overall sensibility. “I think we’re getting to the good part,” Carr said. “That’s what it feels like to me.”

Below, three (by now familiar) ideas that emerged, again and again, during the conversation:

1. The core need for context in addition to, and as part of, news narrative.

“We need to go back to getting stories,” said Huffington. But we need, she continued, to tell stories in a new way — to bolster them with background information, smart framing, and, overall, context. “How do we do impact journalism — especially at a time when so many institutions are crumbling?” Huffington asked. Which is also to say: “How do we do journalism in a way that is transformational?”

One answer to that question, she said, is to leverage the expertise of editors. Even in the aggregative work The Huffington Post is engaged in, Huffington pointed out, “the editorial function is paramount.” If a story is “surging” — i.e., getting heavy traffic and pass-around — it’s up to an editor to decide whether to increase its reach and impact, she said. Is the story, ultimately, “worthwhile”?

Context also demands stepping back from the tumult and taking time to process information as well as produce it, Carr pointed out. “I think because we’re so busy pushing media out, that it makes us dumber and dumber,” he said. (Later, he added: “This thing about iterating, iterating, iterating — great. But every once in a while, pick up the gun and shoot it.”)

“Editors are always saying, ‘Do more with less,'” Carr said. “We know that’s baloney. We know that’s not true.” He echoed a comment Mark Russell had made earlier: Know your strengths, he said, and focus on those. “We have a guy named Brian Stelter, who every time he moves his elbow, media pops out,” Carr pointed out. But Stelter is a digital native, Carr said; not everyone can — or should — be like him. Pick your battles.

2. The need for strategic use of new technologies.

“The cloud enriches what we do in ways that we don’t even see — because it happens slowly,” Carr said. And it opens up the possibilities for journalistic creation. “There’s this cereal box of things I could be doing every single day,” Carr pointed out. But, then again, “just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.” Again, be selective.

And that’s a rule for preserving not just journalists’ sanity, but also their journalism itself. “It’s not how many times you tweet,” Huffington said; rather, “it’s how effectively we can use the new media and the new technologies.” And it’s about taking advantage of the new connectivity that the web allows to improve journalistic storytelling. “Technology has allowed millions of people to express themselves as they’ve never been able to before, she said — to the extent that “self-expression is the new entertainment.” And leveraging that expressive explosion is to everyone’s benefit.

(As to the payment question: People ask why people edit Wikipedia for no money, Huffington said. People ask why people tweet for no money. “But nobody asks, ‘why are they watching seven hours of bad TV for no money?'”)

3. The need for respecting readers and their desires for the news.

The patriarchal days of journalism are over, the panelists suggested; today, news is about determining what readers want — and not only giving it to them, but giving it to them where they are. Social media aren’t merely valuable as crowdsourcing mechanisms; they’re valuable as distribution platforms. “That’s the stage you have to be in because that’s what the users expect,” Russell said. Ultimately, “we have to be in the spaces they’re in.”

4. The need for collaboration.

We’re in a time that finds discrepant news approaches colliding with each other. “Arianna’s marching toward us in terms of some things that she’s up to; and we’re marching up toward her,” Carr said. It’s “insurgent warfare” — “and we’re at a disadvantage because we have all of these legacy costs and systems,” he pointed out of the Times. “The frictional stuff that’s going on is breathtaking to behold.”

One thing to remember, though: When news outlets become casualties of our transforming news system, their loss “is not collateral damage,” Carr said; it’s a real reduction in our ability to cover communities. Which makes collaborations — which are, among other things, hedges against news vacuums — increasingly valuable.

A lot of these hybrid models — “which I thought were, frankly, baloney when they first launched,” Carr said — are now playing an indispensable role.

POSTED     April 13, 2010, noon
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