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May 28, 2009, 9:52 a.m.

Resolved: Newspapers could die. Now what? A panel in Baltimore

recyclingpapersIn Baltimore next week, The Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland will ask the  uncomfortable question: What happens to journalism if the the local newspaper ceases to exist?

The panel, moderated by Merrill’s Kevin Klose, is scheduled to include both the current editor of The Baltimore Sun and his immediate predecessor, the publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American, a television investigative reporter, and blogger, consultant and media entrepreneur Mark Potts, who joked in an email that he’ll be in the role of “Mr. Non-Traditional Media,” representing all things independent and hyperlocal for the evening.

Why is Potts the lone representative of potential new directions, especially in a city with a fair number of emerging media operations?  Sandra Banisky, Merrill College’s Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism, answers vie email: “I didn’t want to have to choose among local bloggers, so I went with someone national, who could speak about hyperlocal efforts around the country. But, I certainly hope local bloggers and founders of community websites attend and join the discussion.”

Indeed, the goal of the event is not to focus solely on the troubles of one city — Baltimore — but to imagine what comes next in a city with a troubled newspaper (which is to say, nearly any city). Again, Banisky: “We’ll be talking about all metro areas and the future should the traditional big reporting engine — the newspaper staff — shrink to nothing or go away altogether. Can newspapers be nimble enough to adjust sufficiently? If not, where does the reporting come from? How will we know what’s going on in government, businesses, schools? So: Seattle, Ann Arbor, Tucson, Boston, Baltimore — all cities are looking at the same issues.”

Mark Potts – who once helmed the Backfence.com experiment in the Washington, DC suburbs – remains optimistic that a rich hyperlocal network remains a very real possibility for the future of journalism. “It’s still an enormous opportunity,” he emailed, “but the business model remains uncertain and unproven.”

“Somewhere out there is a combination of low-cost, smart local ad sales and super-interested local readers that will make hyperlocal a success. One current problem: The advertising market is incredibly soft, and anybody who sells local advertising knows that. As the economy comes back, that will improve. But for now, that’s a real impediment–the small businesses that should be supporting these things are all hunkered down for now and not spending money,” Potts says.

Until then, what? For some, the current recession is, in fact, the best possible time to launch new ventures, with a glut of cheap supplies and free publishing systems, talented people suddenly available for hire, and existing media distracted by cash-flow crises. Despite their absence on the panel, there are a healthy number of news and information startups underway in Baltimore, as in other cities, a point made by Dave Troy a Baltimore-based technology entrepreneur, who expressed  disappointment at the makeup of the panel.

“There is a lot of grassroots experimentation taking place in the Baltimore local journalism market — exactly the kind of experimentation that might survive in the coming years,” Troy noted. “For Big Iron journalism to discuss the future and only seriously involve Big Iron journalists seems shortsighted at best, and disingenuous at worst. While an effort was made to represent some new ideas on this panel, no serious effort was made to reach out to the community of people who are actually working on these approaches.”

Troy, who created Twittervision and Flickrvision, headed the Twitter Vote Report during the 2008 Presidential Election and recently launched Beehive Baltimore and Baltimore Angels, sees a journalistic future for cities like Baltimore that includes many more distributed reporting resources and organizations. “Inclusivity has to start at the beginning,” he said in an email, “not later on at some imagined inflection point when power is secured. And this is the root of the problem: Big Iron assumes it has the power and will do whatever it can to retain it.”

Banisky, though, believes the evening is about the future and should focus on what comes next, not what came before. “Our hope is that lots of new reporting efforts are represented there to give the audience an idea of what’s going on around the area,” she emailed.

Mark Potts notes that while the headline for this event may be about newspapers, that’s not what it ultimately should be focused on: “Journalism does not equal newspapers, so the death of newspapers doesn’t mean the death of journalism. It just shifts it to myriad other media types. We’re in a very chaotic, cloudy period of transition, as Clay Shirky has brilliantly written, and it’s hard to see what’s on the other side. But there will still be people wanting news and information, and people wanting to provide it, and businesses who want to reach customers. All those ingredients are unchanged.”

The symposium is being videoed for later viewing. Check journalism.umd.edu after June 3rd.

POSTED     May 28, 2009, 9:52 a.m.
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