Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 7:27 am | Fair 37º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Local Journalists Remain Hopeful About the Future of the Industry

Acknowledging a changing tide to online news from print, forum panelists say what matters is there's still a need — and demand — for quality reporting

If attendance was any indicator at the “Future of Journalism” forum Wednesday night, Santa Barbara residents really, really care about journalism and where it’s headed.

The Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery was packed with attendees to hear a panel of experienced journalists talk about where they see the industry going, nationally and in Santa Barbara.

The city has been a “petri dish” of journalistic experimentation, said panelist Nick Welsh, editor and writer for the Santa Barbara Independent, largely instigated by the Santa Barbara News-Press meltdown in 2006.

The event was 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 first speaker of the night was the Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey, a media columnist who has worked in the industry for 27 years. In a broad overview of what the industry is going through, he recounted the past and how anyone populating the newsroom in those days had a strong distaste for anyone in advertising, often referring to those who sold ads for the Times as “ad goons.”

“We’re not quite like that anymore,” he said. “At this point, if we can pay the bills and keep the lights on and pay reporters, you can wrap it in almost anything you want. We really are at a crisis in print journalism.”

Rainey said he was surprised to learn how much lower prices are for online advertisements than print ads, and he said he thinks the industry will keep flailing until it finds an equilibrium. “I don’t think we’re really going to find that for several years,” he said.

Several reporters have left the Times, he said, and are now working for Pro Publica, an investigative journalism site sponsored by foundations.

Another successful model Rainey mentioned was Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit online newsroom that operates with a small staff of investigative reporters. “That gives me some hope ... and I see that there is a way to pull this off, but I think for the next few years it’s going to be a little wild,” he said.

Panelist Susan Paterno, who directs the journalism program at Chapman University, recounted her experience being sued by News-Press owner Wendy McCaw, a libel suit she eventually won.

“I have much hope for the future of journalism,” she said. “We’re entering a time of great innovation.”

Paterno talked about how Twitter was being used in Iran to dispute election results and how a rape in China had been brought to light because of the Internet. “If it had not been for those citizen journalists, justice would not have been served,” she said.

Jerry Roberts, co-founder of calbuzz.com and a former News-Press editor and publisher and former San Francisco Chronicle managing editor, was upbeat about the future of journalism online.

Jerry Roberts, co-founder of calbuzz.com, expresses optimism about the future of journalism during Wednesday's forum
Jerry Roberts, co-founder of calbuzz.com, expresses optimism about the future of journalism during Wednesday’s forum. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

He cited a Nielsen online study that says 75 million people now read newspapers online, 25 percent more readers than two decades ago.

“They’re reading newspapers, they’re just not reading it in print,” he said. “The Internet is far more democratic than anything that has come before.” He has seen that firsthand with the instant feedback via reader comments.

“It’s really a conversation,” he said. “It’s not longer a lecture.”

Aggregation is also a strength, and Roberts plugged local aggregators such as Edhat.com.

Investigative journalism is so expensive that newspapers are no longer able to sustain the reporters needed for those undertakings. Sites such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting are starting to address those needs and look for new ways to report, sans print.

“It’s early on, it’s the Wild West out there, there’s a lot of experimentation, but I think you can begin to see the seeds of how this is changing,” he said.

It’s easy to romanticize the “golden days” of journalism that lend newspapers a certain haze of nostalgia, but Welsh was quick to dispense a dose of reality about those days.

“They weren’t necessarily that great, and daily papers have a lot to answer for,” he said. “I think it’s a little grandiose among print reporters to think that if they’re not around in their present configuration, the world will cease to spin on its axis. Unfortunately, even in the golden age of journalism ... we didn’t really save the world from itself, we didn’t save people from themselves and we didn’t save anybody from their elected officials.”

Welsh praised the world of blogs and citizen journalism, but he said that the day-to-day, such as school board meetings, more than ever need to be covered consistently.

“It is a complex, bizarre language that they speak at those school board meetings,” he said, garnering laughs from his audience. “We have yet to figure out quite how to monetize this,” he said, before mentioning that the Independent’s paper is smaller than it was this time last year, but that its model is working well for now.

UCSB sociology professor emeritus, radio host and community activist Dick Flacks said a gap remains in Santa Barbara’s coverage, one that has existed since 2006. Flacks asked Roberts how many employees the News-Press newsroom had when he worked there, and Roberts said about 55.

Flacks said the combined number of full-time reporters for Noozhawk, the Independent and the Daily Sound is significantly lower. “Excellent reporters, but they don’t come near even 20 percent of what the News-Press was able to provide,” he said. “There is a gap.”

Flacks said public broadcasting is a good example of publicly funded news organizations and a viable model for the future, and advocated for investigative projects locally to be funded by individuals and foundations.

“This turnout suggests that people are hungry for more,” he said to the audience. “Let’s get engaged ourselves, together here and online, in making these things useful ... Our future really does depend on it.”

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

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