Tuesday, September 18 , 2018, 5:31 pm | Fair 76º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Online Journalists Say the Future Is Now

While a forum explores how newspapers might survive declining readership and a brutal economy, online-only news publications are going about their business

In the past 12 months, Americans have seen entire industries humbled, on their knees and seeking intervention, with the financial and auto industries most visible.

The jury’s still out for the newspaper industry, although there’s a collective gloom shared by many journalists when they talk about the direction of print news. Two storied newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, already have shuttered their newsrooms this year, and more are likely to follow suit.

Thanks to a steep drop in advertising revenue, newspapers were already on shaky ground before the recession. Which begs the question: What will journalism look like as we navigate through and end up on the other side of this rough-and-tumble economy?

During a forum at the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery on Wednesday night, a panel of seasoned journalists will discuss the future of newspapers. As a precursor to that event, Noozhawk talked to local companies that think about the future of professional journalism every day, and are experimenting with new ways to keep the fourth estate flourishing in Santa Barbara — on the Web.

It’s too early to tell which models will be the most successful, what role advertising will play in an era of Craigslist, and whether readers are even willing to pay for their news like in the old days. But the conversation is alive and well in Santa Barbara.

Warren Schultheis is the founder of the Web site City 2.0, which aggregates local headlines from traditional local news sources, but also has a whole army of bloggers who contribute. In addition to the blog links, the site also has active forums set up for centralized discussion. City 2.0 has been up and running since February, and Schultheis said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

Although the core of workers at City 2.0 is small, Schultheis said about 50 bloggers regularly contribute to the site.

“Santa Barbarans like to be heard, so we’re getting a lot of new sign-ups every week,” he said. Having an abundance of user-generated content was particularly significant for the site during the Jesusita Fire, which saw users updating with photos, maps and links to new fire maps, among other things.

An online feedback loop is more efficient, so things such as corrections get handled more quickly. Feedback on the stories themselves has a way of adding transparency, too, Schultheis said.

“This doesn’t mean that reader feedback is weighted the same in terms of accuracy, but it helps to put information in context — which is immensely valuable,” he said.

The idea of the “Citizen Journalist” is still somewhat of a hot topic in the journalism world, a fact that Schultheis acknowledges. But he said there are degrees of quality, from professional journalists as well as bloggers, and he encourages all of City 2.0’s bloggers to read over the Knight Citizen News Network’s Principles of Citizen Journalism, which details citing sources, being transparent and objectivity.

As newsroom staffs shrink and bow to cost-cutting, it’s inevitable that topics such as sports may be overlooked. After leaving their jobs as sports reporters at the Santa Barbara News-Press, Blake Dorfman and John Dvorak began PresidioSports.com to address that very issue.

Presidio Sports is the only online sports section in Santa Barbara, and Dorfman and Dvorak are constantly finding out what works and what doesn’t through reader response. Feedback has been particularly strong from high school athletes and their parents, and Dorfman said he gets e-mails from locations like Santa Ynez, asking when the site will expand its territory. Stories are often posted just hours after an event, “which means no more waiting for the paper to hit the driveway to find out what went on,” he said.

Presidio Sports covers its costs through online advertising, which Dorfman strongly advocates.

“It’s been proven that online advertising is not just the future but the present,” he said.

Many more established businesses, founded in the days of print, find it harder to make the transition to the Web, and apprehension in a struggling economy is understandable.

The unlimited space of the Internet is a blessing for Presidio Sports, and enables its founders to utilize video on the site, update sports scores on a ticker or add a photo album full of images from an event. When staff members are unable to cover an event, Dorfman and Dvorak welcome submissions from the public.

“Anybody can go to ESPN.com to read about the Lakers and Dodgers, but where will they go to read about all the local things?” Dorfman asked. Newspapers such as the Orange County Register have done a terrific job in making the online transition, he said, but most other papers have not, and those in Santa Barbara are no exception.

“People shouldn’t have to pay to go online and read a news story, whether it is about a fire, a City Council meeting or a high school basketball game,” he said.

Another site launched last year is PlanetSantaBarbara.com, which was started by Matt Mason, who in addition to writing his own news reports, also works as a software engineer. Mason said he’s been able to use technology to his advantage by using Twitter to break news; he said his Twitter feed is ranked second in Santa Barbara.

The site most recently has been able to feature lengthy videos of 35th Assembly District candidates Mike Stoker and Das Williams, and Mason said he’ll do the same for Santa Barbara council candidates running in November’s election.

“We give people an opportunity to see more than the sound bite, in the candidates’ own words,” he said. “You can’t get that anywhere.”

Closer to home, Noozhawk talked with our own Bill Macfadyen, the founder and publisher, about the future of print vs. the Web.

“I grew up in a family of newspaper readers; that was my parents’ routine just as it was their parents’,” he said. “My grandfather, Jack Macfadyen, founded the Malibu Times in the 1940s. My grandmother was the society editor. But that was back in the stone ages of technology.”

Noting that he hasn’t had a daily newspaper subscription since 2001, Macfadyen said his children have grown up watching him get his news online instead of reading an actual paper.

“That’s what they know. So what kind of routine do you think their children are going to think is typical?” he asked. “Paper just isn’t it, and it actually has very little to do with the fact that it’s environmentally wasteful.”

As the co-founder in 2002 of the South Coast Beacon, a weekly newspaper that earned the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s General Excellence Award before closing in 2005, Macfadyen can make direct comparisons between the two products. Almost any Web-based business has lower overhead, but a news Web site also creates a 24-hour news cycle, which is both an opportunity and a challenge, he said.

Noozhawk covers its operating costs through advertising and sponsorships, and although the site is still a start-up business, Macfadyen said he’s encouraged by the progress. As far as what revenue model will be effective in the future, global sites that offer a pay-as-you-read system, such as has been proposed by Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch, have definite advantages, he said.

“But in a small town, how many people will actually pay to find out what the school board did rather than just ask a friend to tell them?” he asked.

“The newspaper executives who are stamping their feet and saying that people ought to be paying for content may not yet realize how fossilized that view is,” he said. “Younger generations look at the Internet as one big free-for-all. Literally.”

While technology enables anyone with an Internet connection to provide information to a larger audience, Macfadyen said he believes that readers still have a desire for in-depth, professional reporting.

“The advent of blogging and Twitter has been a great development for news consumers, particularly for breaking stories,” he said. “But readers usually want more than 140 characters of type on larger issues. They expect online publications to provide serious professional reporting and context, like what used to be found in newspapers.

“That’s what Noozhawk strives to provide. We understand this is a 24/7 commitment, and we’re staking our reputation on that reliability.”

The public is invited to join the free discussion, “The Future of Journalism,” from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Central Library, 40 E. Anapamu St.

Moderated by local media blogger Craig Smith and sponsored by the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the discussion includes panelists:

» Dick Flacks, a UCSB sociology professor emeritus, radio host and community activist who helped create the nonprofit organization that operates public-access Channels 17 and 21.

» Susan Paterno, who directs the journalism program at Chapman University and successfully fought a libel suit filed against her by the News-Press.

» James Rainey, the Los Angeles Times’ media columnist and a 27-year veteran in the business.

» Jerry Roberts, co-founder of calbuzz.com and a former News-Press editor and publisher and former San Francisco Chronicle managing editor.

» Nick Welsh, the Santa Barbara Independent’s longtime editor.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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