Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The New News Report, a Study of Chicago's New Media

A new document was released on June 17, 2009 by the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. "The New News - Journalism We Want And Need" is a survey of local media and an attempt to better understand the impact of online, digital journalism. Downloaded the pdf here.

The CMW says this about their report:

“Understanding how online information and communications are meeting, or not, the needs of the community is crucial to the Trust’s project supported by the Knight Foundation. To this end, the Trust commissioned the Community Media Workshop to produce The New News: Journalism We Want and Need. We believe this report is a first of its kind resource offering an inventory and assessment of local news coverage for the region by utilizing the interactive power of the internet. Essays in this report also provide insightful perspectives on the opportunities and challenges.”

The study looks at local digital news outlets ("blogs," if you will) and their impact on local news coverage. It ponders how journalism and newspapers arrived at the crucial moment they are now in, and wonders whether they can survive. Overall, the document is fascinating and informative. Does it provide answers or remedies? No, of course not. It is, however, a very interesting and thought-provoking piece that should be read by anybody interested in the subjects of journalism, newspapers, media, advertising, web sites and the blogosphere.

By now, most people are probably aware of the financial crunch that many newspapers are suffering nationwide. The current recession has made things even more difficult, but the problem started for newspapers long before the current economic turmoil. Web sites that report news and current events information, as well as entertainment, have been cutting into the readership of newspapers for more than 10 years. Like dinosaurs looking at a monster comet bearing down on them, the newspaper publishers saw the disaster coming but did not comprehend its significance. Not until, that is, it was too late. Even then, once they realized that disaster was upon them, most still seem incapable of adapting to the new climate in which Journalism finds itself.

Like the dinosaurs 65 million years ago that floundered and died in the aftermath of the comet strike, newspapers are today floundering about in the rubble, not fully comprehending what just happened to them, and not able to figure out a new survival strategy. The Christian Science Monitor has gone completely digital, publishing only online and no longer killing trees for a paper edition. Only a handful of other major dailies have made that bold transition, however.

There have been numerous studies and reports about this, big and small, from newspaper groups, independent think tanks, journalism colleges, and others. Nobody has come up with a model for that would ensure the survival of newspapers. My guess is that nobody will, frankly, and that individual newspapers will have to find their own best paths. There is talk of the Government stepping in to “save” newspapers. God help us all if that happens. Do we really want government officials pulling the financial strings of the very media that we trust (or hope) will keep those bums honest? I hope and pray that few of us do.

Phil Rosenthal doesn't get it
Needless to say, the CMW’s report has its critics. Those critics, however, are likely to be some of the very dinosaurs I refer to above. Incapable of fully comprehending the stark reality around them, unable to choose a survival path quickly enough, and not nimble enough to outrun the more versatile and swifter rodents around them, the dinosaurs look at the study and comment on it derisively.

One such dinosaur is Phil Rosenthal, a kunbarrasaurus of a man still mired in the Cretaceous swamp of Old Media. Rosenthal writes primarily about the endangered species in the media world, specializing in articles about television and other mainstream news and entertainment outlets. He writes about them for one of the biggest and most recently bankrupt dinosaurs around, the endangered Chicago Tribune.

On June 10, a full week before the release of CMW’s "The New News" document, Rosenthal wrote a column titled "Study measures Chicago's non-traditional online news sources." An excerpt:
A new report due out Wednesday [June 17] from the Community Media Workshop, commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust with $25,000 of a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, attempts to look at alternative news sources. In recognition of the economic pressures wreaking havoc on traditional news outlets such as this one, "The New News: Journalism We Want and Need" offers an inventory and assessment of area online news sites.
"We decided we should do an environmental scan to see who was doing some of the work that we were thinking about doing ourselves," said Ngoan Le, vice president of programs for the Community Trust.
It's earnest but hit-or-miss.
“Hit or miss?” The report itself acknowledges that it is not a blueprint for action, nor a prescription for any cure. The CMW’s report surveys a number of local media outlets (which includes blogs such as this one), but does not include all blogs or web sites. It simply can’t, and to attempt to do so would be foolish. For one thing, there are thousands of blogs in the Chicago area, and more than 70 million worldwide. It would be a silly effort to include them all, not only for time and space consideration, but also because most are insignificant. Rosenthal’s dismissal of the report smells of bitterness and fear.

Rosenthal himself acknowledges that CMW makes no pretense of perfection, as illustrated by this quote in his June 10 column:
"It's the first kind of study like this, and now we know why. It's really hard," said Gordon Mayer, vice president of the Community Media Workshop. "One of the things that we said to people while we were doing this is that trying to take a snapshot of what's going on with online news in Chicago right now is sort of like trying to take a picture of a speeding train from a moving car. We don't think this is a definitive study."
Rosenthal’s bitterness bubbled through the brackish swamp water with this:
"Outlets such as and were left out "because it would just blow everyone else out of the water," Mayer said. Yet the Tribune's Daywatch e-mail is at No. 27 and Lynn Sweet's Sun-Times blog is No. 28. Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.'s Chicago magazine's Web site clocks in at No. 47." [Emphasis mine]
Chicago News Bench comes in at No. 32. The Chicago Reader is No. 36. YoChicago is No. 38. But so what? The numbers are not as important as what the study attempts to accomplish, which is to show the current state of the media and an attempt to discern the alternate futures that lie ahead for it. Rosenthal, winds up his June 10 column by further mocking CMW’s effort by quoting Mayer again:
"This is a report that everyone will find something to hate about," Mayer said. "It's not a flashlight. It's a candle, or a match, in a dark room."
“A $25,000 match,” notes Rosenthal. Smell the bile rising up? Rosenthal’s obsession with the irrelevant cost of the study (modest when compared to just about any government sponsored study) ends up blinding him to the significance of the report.

As I noted previously, the study is not perfect, it is not all-inclusive, and as Rosenthal himself highlights, CMW itself admits this. What Rosenthal misses is not only the comet bearing down on him and his fellow Archosauria, but an honest attempt to find an escape route to safer ground.

Either he cannot see it or chooses to dismiss it. A "match," he called it, but it's really a comet. It's as bright a sun, but he's closed his eyes.

Some of the dinosaurs learned to fly and became birds by the end of the Cretaceous period 146 million years ago. They adapted and thrived. There are writers and journalists today who are flexing their primitive wings and learning to survive in a brutal new world. The featherless Rosenthalsauri will perish, but the lineage will continue in a smaller and swifter form long after the comet strike.