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Senators ponder the future of journalism

At a three-hour hearing, representatives of old and new media throw out their ideas.

May 08, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

WASHINGTON — They like us. They really like us. Just don't expect them to help us invent the future.

A string of U.S. senators delivered so many lofty odes to the American newspaper at a "Future of Journalism" hearing this week, it almost made me blush.

When a Republican senator suggests you're something like a bulwark of democracy, you've got to smile.

But that doesn't mean newspapers command a winning majority around here. Not even in good times and especially not now, when the government has a few other items atop its agenda, like economic turmoil, dysfunctional healthcare and Islamic extremism.

So senators and a panel of experts mulled antitrust exemptions and nonprofit status for newspapers, but Wednesday's three-hour session had all the urgency of a confirmation hearing for postmaster general.

That left plenty of time for the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet to take testimony from a panel of experts, who brimmed with New Media triumphalism, Old Media hand-wringing and hopes for an old-new "hybrid" that will be the future of news.

I don't know which was scarier: hearing from Dallas Morning News Publisher James M. Moroney that his paper gets as little as 40 cents for 1,000 views of an ad on the paper's website, or listening as Arianna Huffington crooned in mesmerizing Greek English that "seetazooon joornolusts" (that's "citizen journalists") will make it all better.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called the hearing because he sees newspapers as an "endangered species," one that has traditionally provided the vast bulk of investigative and public interest reporting.

Kerry and several other senators, particularly Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), said they saw websites and amateur reporters providing information, but not of the quantity or quality of old line news organizations.

(McCaskill reported that, even as she sat in the hearing, she BlackBerryed in a rebuttal to a false blog report about her on a St. Louis website.)

Huffington told the senators and newspaper folk they should stop clinging to the past and submit to an emerging "pro-am model," in which amateur reporters get guidance from professional journalists and editors.

She noted that the website Talking Points Memo relied in part on citizens to discern a pattern, when the Bush Justice Department dumped U.S. attorneys who would not toe its political line.

The Huffington Post founder also celebrated Web upstarts like Voice of San Diego that have had some success with investigative reporting. She touted her own launch of an investigative team and her plan to hire local reporters in a dozen cities.

I welcome all the upstarts. News consumers need more, not less. But even most of the newcomers concede that newspapers still provide the bulk of the news. And Huffington gets a little ahead of the facts when she claims that powerful new journalism is blooming in every corner of the nation.

Former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon played Arianna's foil.

"The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we've actually reached some sort of equilibrium," said Simon, creator of the gritty HBO hit "The Wire."

Simon said newspapers, cutting staffs to make higher profits, had partly brought on their own demise.

But he heaped extra derision on Web aggregators, "parasites" he accused of sucking the life from their hosts.

Newsroom cuts, Simon said, mean that "the next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption."

Moroney, the Dallas publisher, noted that, if 2009 revenue continues its current decline, some papers will have lost as much as half their ad revenue in just three years.

It would help considerably, he argued, if the government (via an antitrust exemption) would allow print companies to come together to try to cut revenue-sharing arrangements with Google and, perhaps, Amazon, maker of the automated Kindle reader. (Moroney said Amazon wanted 70% of the revenue generated by running newspaper content.)

Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, virtually dared newspaper execs -- albeit in a prim, business-school tone -- to follow through on their complaints and simply block listings of their stories and pictures from turning up on the search engine. The technology allows it.

But most papers have been loath to give up the considerable traffic Google drives their way.

Mayer told the senators that papers should be paying more attention, first, to mending their own houses. She said "reader engagement" could be improved markedly by better directing readers from one story to other, similar features and advertising. "What concerns me" she said after the hearing, "is, do we have the product right?"

Former Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll said he feared "a lost generation of American journalism," before new outlets step up to replace the old.

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