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Jan. 29, 2009, 8:45 a.m.

Objectivity or voice: Which tells the story better?

It’s instructive to look at how two organizations covered an event sponsored by a Seattle City Council member yesterday on the future of newspapers (yes, newspapers).

Aside from the story itself, which is fascinating, the way the two organizations — a daily newspaper in Seattle that’s at the center of the story it’s covering, and a national media blog run by the proprietor of a hyperlocal Seattle web site — cover the story says a lot about the relative merits of objectivity and voice in journalism.

Here’s the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

American newspapers have been around for 220 years, but now the longtime linchpins of democracy may face an unprecedented challenge: how to avoid extinction.

Such was the conclusion Wednesday at a public meeting before Seattle City Council members, who are looking at a possible government role in saving the Seattle P-I. Plenty of opinion, concern, optimism — but no solid answers — emerged from a spirited discussion before the council’s Culture, Civil Rights, Health and Personnel Committee, convened in response to The Hearst Corp.’s announcement Jan. 9 that the P-I was for sale.

Committee Chairman Nick Licata and fellow council members Tom Rasmussen and Jean Godden, a former P-I columnist, said losing the 146-year-old institution would leave a huge news hole in a community that prides itself on being well informed.

Well-edited. Seemingly balanced. And yet it presents the “conclusions” of the meeting as is, with no perspective or dissenting voice.

And here’s Cory Bergman, media-blogger and neighborhood journalist.

With the Seattle PI just a few weeks from shutting down its printing press — and perhaps the entire operation — Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata brought a council committee together today to talk about the future of newspapers in a soon-to-be one newspaper town. While I applaud Licata for tackling the complex topic, I about fell out of my chair while I watched the live stream of the event at my desk. The vast majority of the discussion missed the point, straying into common misconceptions and old-school thinking about journalism in a new connected world.

3. “We had better start asking questions and realizing that the loss of the P-I, among others, would be a staggering loss to our community and a direct assault on the American people’s right to know.” (That’s from Congressman Jim McDermott.)

First of all, there’s the Seattle Times, four TV newsrooms and an all-news radio station in town. Then there’s two dozen neighborhood news sites, a dozen neighborhood newspapers, two alt weeklies with aggressive websites and a handful of niche news sites like Crosscut.com and the Puget Sound Business Journal, to name a few. People now go directly to national sites like msnbc.com for their national and international news. And whatever vacuum is created by the loss of the PI (and potentially the Times, as it’s in deep financial trouble) — just like any industry before it — will be filled by existing competitors and new start-ups.

4. So what about all these “blogs.” Are they “professional journalists?” How do we know they’re accurate? They might hear an explosion and post that “we’ve been bombed.” (Yes, that was a quote from a councilmember.)

This is when I about fell out of my chair. Seattle, as I’ve written before, is on the cutting edge of online neighborhood news with over two dozen sites and counting. (Please note these neighborhood sites are not like most neighborhood blogs: we actively cover the news.) About half of these are from people who have worked as traditional journalists at some point over their careers, like Tracy Record and me. The others, like Amber Campbell of RainierValleyPost, taught herself journalism, covering her lower-income, high-crime neighborhood with a depth and conviction that no newspaper or TV station in town can match. After all, when there’s a gang shooting, TV stations go live at 11 p.m. and drop the story the next day. Campbell hits the street in her own neighborhood, talks to families and looks for answers. Is she not a professional journalist? Hell yes, she is.

Which account gives you the better sense of what happened at the hearing? I’d say Bergman’s, even with his obvious conflicted interest in the topic (which, of course, The P-I has too, but shields behind the journalistic tradition of objectivity), gets to the heart of the matter and holds a sharp pin to the over-inflated balloon that were the committee’s preconceptions.

I know which one I’d read all the way through.

POSTED     Jan. 29, 2009, 8:45 a.m.
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