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44th Annual Carlos Kelly McClatchy Memorial Symposium

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The NYT doesn’t cost a dime anymore. I don’t know why we expect it to turn on one.

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The Symposium

Last night, October 22, the lights went up on stage at Stanford‘s Cubberly auditorium for the 44th iteration of the Carlos K. McClatchy Symposium. The annual event addresses prescient issues in the field of Journalism, this year being no exception.

In front of an audience of roughly 100, some of whom appeared to have arrived from the myriad alumni events happening on campus this homecoming weekend, Professor and Pulitzer winner Joel Brinkley moderated a combo lecture and discussion between some of Journalism’s giants-left-standing.

On hand, from left to right at the speakers table, were, Paul Steiger, longtime editor at the Wall Street Journal and now founder and CEO of ProPublica.org, Phillip Balboni- CEO of Global Post, Martin Nisenholtz (filling in for an ill Arthur Sulzburger) EVP of Digital Operations at the New York Times and Albero Ibarguen, President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

These men, each with more than enough success to fill a single career, represented to the audience a group of connectors—those beleaguered media executives who have made it their second (or third) life’s work to port the rigors, lessons and values of democracy supporting news media to a coming era of limitless possibility and distribution.

Whether I agree or not with their desperate takes on the new way forward, I have to applaud, lightly, their willingness to suit up and fight a battle worth winning.

What they said

Steiger led off with a similar pitch to the one he delivered to the smaller audience of my Journalism cohort earlier in the day. ProPublica, he explained, is a non-profit, privately funded investigative journalism outlet that strives to do the most important types of socially relevant, bureaucracy changing reporting.

It was his team that, last year, broke a story about some obviously negligent nurses going from hospital to hospital in repeated cycles of theft, drug use and patient abuse. They were able to do so because California’s nursing board took 3-6 YEARS to instigate and potentially suspend these convicted criminals’ nursing licenses. The story ran late in a week, and on Monday, as you may remember, Gov. Schwarzenegger fired the entire nursing board.

Steiger, who struck me as exactly the kind of editor I hope to work for and someday become, praised the diversity of his organization, and especially the young journalists there who contribute a new and exciting set of skills. If everyone was in the room to hear about the funding model, Steiger’s solution was private funding support, as long as the proper controls were in place to assure independent work from the organization.

He looks forward to diversifying in the coming year.

Philip Balboni spoke next about Global Post, the only one of the organizations I had never read.

Global Post focuses on international correspondence, but is striving to be *gasp* profitable in the next 5 years. His solution rests on having no news staff, but bringing in a broad international network of journalists who work on contract to the company.

While this model does force the burden of profitability to be born on the backs of a vast, part-time labor force, it does hold the most promise of profitability, in my opinion.

The question is, at what cost does the profit come, and are those costs, being borne by your reporting corp (costs like them having to have another job) too detrimental to the quality of their product to make the entity viable. Will their work suffer along with them?

He also claimed to have “pioneered” the freemium (though he didn’t call it freemium) model, even though Global Post didn’t exist before January 12 this year. The only other slightly troubling aspect of his plan was to offer voting rights on story selection to his premium users. I’m not sure that crowd sourcing news judgment is the best way to deliver the right stories, especially because the most important stories are often not at all popular in concept.

Sulzberger stand-in Martin Nisenholtz had both he most and least to say.

He hinted not too subtly at forthcoming platforms that could take full size consumption truly off the desk for the first time, and that we could expect them as solutions in the next year.I wonder which “platform” from which fruit-named company he might be alluding to.

It wasn’t all tablet rumors, or course.  Nisenholtz presides over arguably the most advanced digital publication on earth, definitely for its size.

My takeaway from his talk was that we are a long way from climbing out of the hole. While the bleeding may continue for some time (the NYT is in the process of reducing their news room staff by 100 as I type), Niesenholtz painted a picture of a world with the Times in it at the end of this saga. I happen to believe him. What will take time, as much as developing new technologies and ways of doing Journalism, will be overcoming the institutional and generational inertia of an enormous organization.

The NYT doesn’t cost a dime anymore. I don’t know why we expect it to turn on one.

Alberto Ibarguen rounded out the group as representative for the John S. and James L. Knight foundation. If you are a consumer of public media, that name should be as familiar as “The John D. and Kathrine T MacArthur foundation”, or “viewers like you.” Ibarguen explained the basics of his generously funded organization and what it is doing to assist in Journalism’s time of need.

Programs like the Knight News Challenge allow the foundation to act as sort of Angel investors for all sorts of open-source news incubators around the country. Sites like everyblock.com and spot.us are among their pantheon of success stories.

Takeaways

Lets be clear. Every one of these men was a talented, polished executive (though to varying degrees). There were no major releases of new info, no policy shifts, and aside from some probing questions from the audience that caused a few neck hairs to be raised, it was a civil exchange.

My takeaways were more philosophical, and reinforced what I’ve been hearing from certain leading minds online and at conferences.

The world has changed (duh). Journalists, partially because of resistance and partially because of a need to focus on their actual jobs, didn’t change with it… or at least, didn’t lead the change as they might have. Today, the worlds major news outlets are in a tough financial position, but those with enough gravitas in their Masthead and depth in their pockets will ride it out. They will emerge smaller and leaner, but more able to do the work today’s world requires.

For my own piece, I don’t think the decline is as simple as Craigslist taking all the classified revenue away, or those pesky bloggers stealing content.

The papers that are dying, because a large portion of their pages were full of stuff that came from other sources and was not a part of their own, in-house, value-add. Today, I can get the wire that the newspapers run from any source I want, and that source doesn’t matter.

Odds are I read that wire from AP yesterday.

The Journalism that the Rocky Mountain News (now closed) was doing is important. Indeed some days I think t is really the only kind of Journalism that really impacts peoples day-to-day lives.It’s city hall coverage, it’s local elections, it’s holding the governments closest to the people the most accountable. It is something our democracy, indeed I’d say any democracy, needs to thrive.

My hope, and my belief is that new, much smaller outlets for genuine reportage will emerge from the ashes (burning paper, get it?). The RMN’s readers don’t need it to give them AP stories, they need it to focus on coverage no one else will provide.

Technologically, I think outlets need to do a MUCH better job of leading users to newer, richer content that the users will likely consume. That content experience should not rely on a web browser for making choices about how its formatted, nor should it be printed on dead trees.

Its coming. maybe I’m just positive because I’d like to participate in the change.

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