Saturday, November 15, 2008

Many questions, few answers

If there's one thing that's clear after Saturday's League of Women Voters "Press in Transition" panel discussion, it's that there are no easy answers to the problems facing journalism today. Indeed, there isn't even much of a consensus on exactly what the problems are.

Approximately 60 people visited the Long Beach Main Library to listen as local journalists and other experts offered their opinions on the current state of journalism in Southern California.

Some panelists were unwaveringly optimistic. Rich Archbold, executive editor of the Long Beach Press-Telegram promised readers that his paper would be one of many still printing in the next century - although the format may not be what readers today expect. But despite falling revenues and circulation, Archbold believes today's environment is more opportunity than obstacle. The Internet, widely blamed for print media's loss of advertising revenue and readership, marks a revolution in Media, said Archbold.

"We're on the cusp of something amazing," he said. "This is almost bigger than Gutenberg."

Panelist Danny Paskin, assistant professor at CSULB, told the audience that online journalism is indeed growing, and represents a total change in the way Americans get their news. Paskin cited the rise of Web sites like the Drudge Report as evidence that online journalism has become a primary news source for many readers.

Other panelists were not as optimistic.

Former Los Angeles Times reporter Jeffrey Rubin offered a much more ominous perspective. For all the ease and accessibility, he said, the Internet hasn't provided "the same quality and depth of knowledge" as print media. Investigative journalism in particular, he said, has declined. Most importantly, the newspaper industry has yet to adjust their business model to reflect the changing times.

"I do not think daily newspapers will be here in 100 years," Rubin said. "I doubt they'll be on your doorstep in 30 years."

Rabin also stressed the need for journalism to maintain credibility in an era of fewer resources and instant information, arguing that accurate political coverage is vital to democracy, and "there is public trust in journalism."

"Our role [as journalists] is to present the why of events and explain ... how did we get to where we are, and that is not happening any more."

Neena Strichart, publisher of the Signal Tribune weekly newspaper, reflected on conditions at the Press-Telegram, and the ongoing reductions in content and staffing. The paper's circulation decline is estimated at more than 25% over the last ten years. Strichart said she's worried by the prospect of Long Beach without the Press-Telegram.

"Thinking about this city without a daily newspaper scares the heck out of me," she said. Strichart explained that for many readers, part of the appeal of a newspaper is its tangibility. A newspaper represents low-cost information that's highly accessible - and most important, it's information you can hold in your hand, touch and feel.

Harry Saltzgaver, associate publisher and executive editor of the Gazette newspapers, believes that focusing on the needs of your audience is key to newspapers' survival. Citing the Press-Telegram's evolution from a regional newspaper to one focused on a single city, Saltzgaver suggested that recent newspaper industry woes have actually been good for daily newspapers like the Press-Telegram because limited budgets have forced them to narrow their focus back to their core audience, and re-examine their presentation of community news.

"Newspapers are on the ascendency, but they're going to look a lot different - both dailies and weeklies," he said. "You need to find your community."

Saltzgaver noted that "10 years ago, we were a public service" that residents counted on, as essential as electricity or water service. "I hope we can go back to that."

The discussion closed with questions submitted by the audience. Guild members took the opportunity to ask Archbold for his position on MediaNews' vehement demand to eliminate all employee job security. Archbold did not answer the question, but said that the company was "looking for any kind of flexibility that will help us to be more efficient." He added that newsroom positions - the very jobs being fought over - are in no danger whatsoever. But Press-Telegram writer Joe Segura points out that whether by layoffs, attrition, or outsourcing, newsroom positions have already been sacrificed at the paper, and now only 11 reporters fill a newsroom held many more only a few short years ago.

S-T commentary: At the close of the panel discussion, audience members were encouraged to become active participants, and help shape the discourse on what newspapers should be in the digital age. We agree completely. Our readers can take action now and click here to support local journalism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Sitrick and Company has more openings?