The news about the news
Last year the news business was hemorrhaging, but it seems the wound is on its way to heeling and changing the very way we consume, for better or worse.
If you're reading this in the print edition of Haaretz, you probably understand that you are among a shrinking cohort of consumers who get, not to mention pay for, their daily dose of news on paper. Even if you're among the vast majority who are reading on the Internet (either because you don't live in Israel or simply because this is how you follow the news ), you're aware that the news business has been in trouble for a while, with papers and other media cutting back, if not closing down altogether, and thousands of professional journalists the world over forced to find new lines of work.
The first time I participated in a weekend meeting of journalistic "thought leaders," sponsored by the no-less awkwardly named organization Images and Voices of Hope, a mere year ago, there was indeed an undercurrent of despair, if not panic, among the two dozen or so participants. Even those of us whose jobs did not appear to be in immediate peril had colleagues and friends who were no longer able to make a living in the field, and all of us were wondering whether there was any future for the news business at all.
A year later, the situation does not appear nearly so dire. There is no doubt that the Internet and related digital technologies are forcing providers to come up with new revenue models to survive, and that not all will succeed in doing so. And if some U.S. newspapers, for example, that were hemorrhaging a year ago are now back in the black, one major reason is that they pruned their editorial staffs ruthlessly, forever eliminating positions. And such moves must inevitably take their toll on the product.
But when the Thought Leaders - most of us longtime veterans who have held positions of significant responsibility in the profession - met again last month, at the Fetzer ethics institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the third of four scheduled annual retreats focused on discussion of journalism and social change (I joined the group in its second year ), the optimistic atmosphere had less to do with a slightly improved economic horizon than with a sense that the new technologies spell opportunity. Not simply the opportunity to deliver the news in new ways, but also to redefine the relationship between the media's producers and consumers, to the point where the very product being offered is something new.
To demonstrate what I'm talking about, I need only describe how the work done by some of my fellow Thought Leaders has changed over the past few years. One American colleague, who worked for a long time as an editor at a large Oregon newspaper, is now a consultant helping towns exploit digital technologies to "foster community debate and action." She shared with us the list she prepared of 100 promising online news sites, some serving individual neighborhoods, that are producing original news and showed signs of being able to sustain themselves economically. When I listened in on a conversation she had with another participant, until recently a reporter for The New York Times, who is now helping the Knight Foundation hand out money to organizations that "use digital technology to inform specific geographic communities," I felt as if I had stumbled upon a new field of endeavor altogether, nearly all of it unfamiliar to me.
A third participant, whose long and diverse career included a decade as a National Public Radio correspondent, is now employed by Public Radio International to develop new interactive media ventures, while yet another, who for more than a decade helped to edit an award-winning newspaper in Idaho, recently accepted a job running a "news literacy" center at a university in New York, which aims to help students become more discerning consumers of the news.
Among others, besides myself, who came to the Fetzer Institute from overseas were the managing director a citizens' media website called Global Voices (it's based in Amsterdam, but she lives in Trinidad and Tobago ), and a former longtime newspaper editor from South Africa, who had come, he joked (I assumed ), with his own traveling vuvuzela that could be dismantled.
The weekend seminar at the institute, which runs and hosts programs dedicated to spreading the values of "love and forgiveness" (and believe me, it's not so easy to parachute from Israel into a place where people are talking about hope, compassion and forgiveness ) at an exquisitely furnished, wooded compound, also served as something of a journalists' support group. In an atmosphere of fellowship and trust, participants spoke not only about their professional values and sense of mission, but also about events in their personal and professional lives that had helped shape them. And as the four-year run of meetings is planned to come to a close next year, the group has also begun to discuss how it might help other journalists, not only in the U.S. but also around the world, to have the opportunity to meet and deal with the larger issues facing the profession today. There was a sense that it would be unfortunate for the encounters to end without our finding a way to spread the lessons learned.
While I'm not suggesting that the news about the news is all good, I'm happy to say that there are at least some rays of light, if only because serious professionals are continuing to think creatively about the future of the industry and find the word "change" to be exhilarating rather than a source of trepidation.
David B. Green is editor of the page of original op-eds published in Haaretz English Edition each Friday.