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June 4, 2009, 9 a.m.

What happens after newspapers? Reporting, apparently, still gets done

At a recent symposium sponsored by The Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, a panel of esteemed news pros wrestled with the topic of what would happen to community journalism in a major city should its newspaper go dark.

It may not have been planned that way, but the event offered several opportunities to answer that question through the coverage of the event itself.

First, there’s the coverage from the big local paper, The Baltimore Sun:

(This space intentionally blank)

The Sun, in an uncanny demonstration of the symposium’s hypothetical premise, was a no-show, reporting-wise. And, yet, somehow, the story got out.

Here’s how I experienced it, live, through Twitter, as I couldn’t actually make the event. It’s great to watch live events be swarmed by interested, intelligent people and reported in real-time:

nancethepants : Franklin: niche sites with credibility will do well. Yes! That’s why we need to protect our own credibility @baltimoresun! #localnews

davetroy : “None of the websites we saw can hold a candle to professional journalism.” – Jayne Miller #localnews Really? That’s the stance?

missjames: miller is obviously not a believer in future of online. #localnews

Soon after the event, local entrepreneur and tech evangelist Dave Troy shared his take on the mood of the room and what, ultimately, disappointed him about the event:

Just as the failure to prevent the September 11 attacks was attributed to a “failure of imagination,” we see a comparable failure of imagination in journalism today.

The traditional media companies fail to imagine what the confluence of web, mobile, and citizen journalism might ultimately be able to deliver, and that it might be better than anything journalism has delivered to date.

Potential funders see all options as risky and want to bet first on “traditional” outlets. They see these brands not only as less risky, but as a restoration to a prior order.

“Restorations” are not how markets work. Things don’t get restored. They are creatively torn apart and reassembled.

The next day, one local news-focused site, Baltimore Brew, served up a summary which was long on looks back to The Sun’s glory days of print publishing, but also offered a tick-tock of the event:

When talk turned to what lies ahead, former Sun editor Tim Franklin, another panelist, said these times are like the days of the penny press when anyone with a hand press could crank out a publication of his own. “Where does this take us?” asked Franklin, who finds the prospect of the next 5 to 10 years either “pretty scary or pretty exciting.”

The one person on the panel positioned to get us beyond handwringing somehow never managed to. This was Mark Potts, former reporter-turned proponent of hyperlocal user-generated news sites. (He was also a co-founder of Backfence, a series of hyperlocal sites that started cash-rich in 2005 but that folded in 2007.)

Potts showed the crowd quick – very quick – examples of promising new local websites, in Baltimore and elsewhere in the country, but did not delve into any of them in depth. He didn’t explain that some sites are aiming to provide real journalism ( like Baltimore Brew or Voice of San Diego or New Haven Independent  ) and mingled these in with websites run by realtors and personal injury lawyers and the so-called “mommy bloggers.” Others that flashed by were actually promising local sites (Localist and 600block) not purporting to expose the next Watergate but to help users find and rate restaurants, theatrical productions, volunteer opportunities, community gatherings, etc.

No wonder Miller heaped scorn on the lot of them. Perhaps another panel will be convened to explore all this in more depth.

And, finally, the view from the podium, from panelist Mark Potts, who talks about his brief demo of emerging micromedia in Baltimore (and includes links in his post):

As I said, this whirlwhind tour just scratched the surface—it literally took me only about 15 minutes on Google and to find my local Baltimore examples, and I know that I missed many, many others (apologies to proprietors of those sites for the omission; hell, the list of blogs started by ex-Sun staffers is a whole category unto itself!). And there are plenty more examples to come—after the panel I spoke to an experienced local entrepreneur who’s planning an ambitious Baltimore online news effort, and I’m sure he’s hardly unique.

The point is that the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point. The replacements already are serving the audience the paper used to have to itself, and there are more in the wings. Are there business models to support all of this new media? Not yet, but there’s no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information. And besides—and this really befuddles traditionalists—some of the people who run these upstarts sites aren’t even in it for the money. They’re providing coverage of their city and specific topics because they love the place where they live and the specific subjects they cover, not because they’re motivated by profit. That’s a very interesting turn of events, and especially tough for big-iron, expensive legacy media to compete with.

Baltimore is hardly unique—the demonstration I did can be done effectively in any city. I strongly suggest that traditional media executives—and anybody who doubts that newspapers be replaced—spend some time trying to find and understand this new competition. It’s out there, no question. There’s more to come. The big-city daily newspaper, already on its heels, is hardly the only game in town. If and when it disappears, there will be plenty of replacements.

Would this coverage have been better had The Sun weighed in? Hard to say. Sun coverage would certainly have carried the conversation to a wider audience; even with recent troubles, there’s no question that newspapers are still the dominant source of news in local communities.

But do I feel that I missed anything, even though I wasn’t in the room and neither — on the clock at least — was Maryland’s largest newspaper?

No. Not at all.

Update and mea culpa: The Sun is not the only daily paper in Baltimore, as the very name of The Daily Record reminds. The Record, long a paper focused on the legal community, has been beefing up its business coverage of late, in part due to the opportunity presented by The Sun’s cutting back on its own business coverage.

The Daily Record also covered the event with a comprehensive write-up by reporter Liz Farmer.

Even better was a sidebar article, which went to former Sun publisher Mike Waller and three former Sun editors to talk about recent changes in the news business. If nothing else, they do give colorful quotes. Waller especially:

“If you cut your wrists long enough and deep enough, you will eventually commit suicide,” said Michael E. Waller, a former publisher of The Sun, adding that The Sun and other newspapers “are cutting stuff to the point of suicide.”

Waller, who retired from The Sun in 2003, also had choice words for Tribune’s business practices.

“Tribune management confuses innovation with idiocy,” he said. “I could wear my underwear over my trousers and Tribune would think that’s innovation. Everybody else would think I was wacko.”

Update 2: The Baltimore City Paper weighs in as well. If you’re keeping track, that’s six angles (counting Twitter as just one, which doesn’t do the many voices justice) on the Merrill event.

POSTED     June 4, 2009, 9 a.m.
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