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The ongoing debate on the digital future of journalism

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports a huge range of journalistic programs, ranging from experimental efforts in community journalism to massive players in the media ecosystem like National Public Radio. 180 of their grantees are in Chicago today at a meeting hosted by Knight designed to build connections between grantees and encourage cross-fertilization of projects. (The Rising Voices project of Global Voices is supported by the Knight Foundation, which is why I’m here.)

It’s also an interesting opportunity to see how people in the journalism world are looking at the business and technical challenges facing the field. The opening speakers, Rosental Alves from the University of Texas and Dianne Lynch from Ithaca College offer quite a bit of disparity in their views of journalism in a digital age. Rosental, who is a pioneering Brazilian journalist and a board member for Global Voices, is a devout cyberenthusiast, while Dianne, the Dean of the Park School of communications, is decidedly more skeptical

Rosental argues that it’s a mistake to think about the current changes in the journalism world as just another business cycle – it’s a revolution, he argues, comparable to the invention of the press or the industrial revolution. In this revolution, we shouldn’t expect broadcast media to disappear, but should expect people to experience media with people like themselves, to try to discover media that people like themselves are interested in.

The very nature of newspapers has changed, Rosental argues – “newspapers are now a hybrid of atoms and bits”. In some ways, the English language is a limitation here – in Portuguese, the word for newspaper is “jornal”, a word that has no implications about the physical delivery of the information. In a new journalism, the digital aspect of the work will be at the center, not at the periphery. Journalists need to discover new ways to tell stories in this medium, to engage communities in their work and to move beyond the “anachronism of the one-way web”.

Lynch is skeptical that the world Rosental promises is here, now. She argues that “news consumers are not early adopters”. Instead, they’re “brand loyal”, willing to stay with their newspapers or sources like Yahoo news. Most consumers don’t read blogs, and those who do trust them even less than they trust news obtained from their neighbors. (Her stats here are from Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2008 – they’re somewhat controversial figures, as some bloggers argue, as Amy Gahran did here, that some readers don’t know when they’re reading blog content.) She argues that citizen media is less open to comments than mainstream media. (I’m sitting next to Dan Gillmor, who points out that bloggers often react by posting on their own blogs, not neccesarily by posting comments.)

Bloggers are not, defacto, journalists, she argues. And journalism is alive and well, if suffering some major revenue problems – she points to the influence of Craigslist and Tulia in destroying the real estate classified market. Readership is up, if we incude online as well as offline readership, and the ad market is still pretty huge, at $45.5 billion last year. But she urges journalists not to obsess with the technology, but to “look through it” towards their function as journalists.

So perhaps bloggers versus journalists isn’t over. Or perhaps we’re simply not able to have a journalism conference without flogging this dead horse a few more times.