MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media is hosting the annual meeting of Knight News Challenge winners at MIT. In typical MIT fashion, we’re given technical goodies to play with – nametags that include a massive QR code and small, flashing devices designed to remind us that we should make sure to mingle and “spread our social capital”. Our host, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, attempts to reassure us that these tools – based in part on the OpenFace toolkit – aren’t designed to surveil us. Right. I’m calling it the Total Csik Awareness System.
While the majority of our conference is a barcamp, with sessions finalized over dinner tonight, the opening plenary is a question and answer, hosted by Henry Jenkins, who’s making one of his final MIT public appearances before moving to USC. He’s interviewing Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibarguen and sociologist/author Eric Klinenberg. The title of the plenary is “News, Nerds and Nabes,” chosen because these three terms came up in all the MIT organizers’ talks with the Knight folks.
Henry asks Alberto whether he, personally, can save the news industry – a reference to a provocatively titled article in Forbes. What, precisely, would we try to save? Alberto explains that the News Challenge was invented to recognize that Knight was “teaching best practices about an industry that was changing radically” – i.e., teaching people the old ways. Part of the change was recognizing that the foundation didn’t know what the answers would be – instead of offering out of date wisdom, they’re sponsoring experiments in neighborhoods, and sometimes in whole nations. The hope is that the solutions will emerge, in part, from this five year experiment.
In the spirit of holding Alberto to his past press statements, Henry asks him whether he still believes that national newspapers aren’t at risk in the current crisis in journalism. He believes the major papers – the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal – either have a “different or delayed” set of problems from regional newspapers. Those regional papers are hit very hard, by Craigslist and earlier by Monster.com. The expense of newsgathering at a regional paper, he argues, is much like the cost of newsgathering at a nationa level – the reporter might spend months unearthing a story. Very local papers will survive on little league scores – they’re not threatened in the same way – but these regional papers are in real trouble. He continues, saying that Knight is “neither smart enough or big enough to save the news business.” In part, the focus is on ensuring universal broadband access, if that’s where community discussion is now moving.
Eric talks about his book, Fighting for Air, which describes the consolidation of local media markets and the damage this consolidation has to local media markets. He references the shift in radio from locally produced content to content produced centrally, designed to sound local. “Most innovative media producers are trying to generate original reporting, but the honest ones admit they need the local paper” as a source of basic reporting for them to comment on. In our current economic crisis, money is flowing to state governments and our traditional watchdogs – local newspapers – are weaker than they have been before.
Henry points out that recent studies from Pew suggest that fewer than half of Americans believe that losing their paper would hurt civic life a lot. Less than a quarter of the youngest would miss the local paper, but more than two thirds say they get local reports from tv or online. Eric isn’t surprised by this – he argues that people have become more disenchanted with their local papers as the second and third papers have disappeared in most markets. However, he believes that most people are reading newspaper content, even if they’re reading it online.
Pointing to statistics that suggest that the average American moves six times in their lifetime, often seeking new economic opportunity, Henry wonders whether this lessens people’s interest in local news. Eric questions the statistics, and argues that we’re more rooted today than in the past, and suggests that most of these moves are local and shouldn’t cut down on interest in local news. Alberto suggests that research Knight is conducting suggests that people’s attachment to places is more about the physical features of a community and its cultural attributes. Eric wonders if this is because we’ve lost faith in local institutions, including newspapers.
Henry offers Clay Shirky’s recent essay on the future of news, suggesting that we need to think about the survival of journalism, not about the future of newspapers. He points out that, in Boston, we’ve got two newspapers, but still don’t get very good information about local elections and candidates. What can we imagine filling these essential community functions in the future?
Alberto points to some of the experiments Knight has sponsored like spot.us and Printcasting might introduce models that could help community news in the future. But he suspects that we’re going to see media focused on a “leadership group” that’s willing to pay for high-quality reporting on paper, a media that reaches elites who are willing to pay for it. Eric wonders whether we might see a subset of Americorps – MediaCorps – which could train a future generation of journalists and rebuild a statehouse press corps with “not all that much public money.” (Ibarguen is skeptical of this idea, and wonders whether the public money would be a form of pressure on these reporters.)
Henry references the current unrest in Iran and the focus on citizen media and wonders what lessons we might learn from the current protests. Alberto points to the reactions in Spain to the Madrid bombings. While the government tried to tie the events to Basque separatists, citizen media argued that this was an incorrect interpretation and helped lead mainstream media to investigate and eventually debunk these claims. Eric acknowledges the power of citizen media during crisis situations. The issue, however, is that our infrastructures may not be able to support such heavy use of mobile phones in disaster situations.
(I, unfortunately, had to duck out at this point and talk to a journalist… from a threatened, regional newspaper, as it happened… :-) My sources tell me that the conversation focused on business models, particularly models for the continued survival of print media, or of serious journalism in digital media.)