Ken Davis, many years ago the program director of WBEZ, has decided to step up and try to save journalism in Chicago. He’s assembling an all-star roster of local talent and putting it on display February 22 in a three-hour forum devoted to the flatlining local news business.
“I become more concerned by the day,” he told me in a recent e-mail. “I know from experience that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in our area who are genuinely worried that we may be about to lose both of our dailies, that the Reader is in critical condition, radio news is all but non-existent, and the crucial role of the fourth estate feels like it’s just fading away.
“But not everything’s bleak. There is some very promising work being doneonline, and it seems, thankfully, to be growing. The problem, as we all know, is that our generation has held to the notion that journalism is a profession, not a hobby, and it should allow the practitioner to make a living.
“It’s vastly over-simplified, but nevertheless entirely valid criticism to say that we got here at least in part because big and greedily growing corporations saw news operations as profit centers. Well-run papers and stations did indeed make decent profits for decades, but not enough to satisfy Wall Street, and as local operations were consumed into capital-driven combines, the corporations had no choice but to increase profit by decreasing staff and resources. The textbook example of stomping the Golden Goose to death.”
I’m glad Davis vented, and I hope that’s now out of his system. The Reader‘s original owners weren’t greedy, weren’t stupid, and didn’t build an empire too big not to collapse. But have you seen the size of the Reader lately? Seventy years ago there were well-run railroads and there were badly run railroads—and in the end they all lost their passenger traffic to the airlines.
But I’d better save my carping for the forum. Davis has booked the Walnut Room of the Hotel Allegro (171 W. Randolph) from 1 to 4 PM Sunday, February 22. He’s lined up Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, former Sun-Times media writer Rob Feder, NBC’s Carol Marin, author Alex Kotlowitz, In These Times‘s Salim Muwakkil, Columbia College journalism professor Barbara Iverson, Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop, master blogger and former Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, Chi-Town Daily News founding editor Geoff Dougherty, and myself. WTTW’s John Callaway and Ben Goldberger, the editor of the Chicago edition of the Huffington Post, are maybes.
Davis tells me Rich Cahan, coauthor of several news-photo collections and the organizer of the photo project “Chicago in the Year 2000,” is recruiting a delegation from Chicago’s major foundations to take in our conversation. “I kind of want to seat them separately,” Davis says. “I don’t want to be putting them on the spot—’What are you going to do?'” But as moderator, he wants to be able to find them in the audience and ask more gently, “What could you do? What in this [economic] environment are you capable of?” Davis adds, “My own view is that there are few more important things they could do for the body politic than assure that good journalism survives in our community.”
It’s nice to think that might be within their powers.
In last week’s Hot Type I wrote about a conference much like Davis’s that was held a year and a half ago in San Francisco. The foundations were represented, and so was government—Arnold Schwarzenegger sent his top legislative aide. David Beers, editor of the Vancouver online news site the Tyee and a participant in the conference, told me these movers and shakers saw the collapse of newspapers for what it was, a crisis: “The civil society model was imploding, and the people who had a large stake in it were freaking out, the people who craft a policy, sell a policy, enact a policy.”
As they saw it, a democratic society is in a state of constant conversation, and without newspapers they weren’t sure how their conversation could continue. A journalism consisting of narrowly focused online news sites and legions of independent amateurs was something they couldn’t quite get their minds around.
California’s pols aren’t the only ones who are worried. The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, just pledged more than $750 million in emergency aid to prop up his country’s ailing newspapers over the next three years, and he said that to encourage the newspaper-reading habit, every 18-year-old in France will be given a free year’s subscription to the paper of his or her choice. Sarkozy’s not trying to turn the clock back. The money’s to keep French papers going while they develop a new business model, and another of his measures is to give tax breaks to investors in online journalism. The French government will also double its level of advertising—both in print and on the Web.
Until someone in City Hall demonstrates otherwise, I have to suppose that our local leaders regard the death of newspapers as a solution rather than a problem. What about government representation? I ask Davis.
“We’ve kind of kicked that around,” he says. “The funding and government people have an incredibly important role to play in this and should be part of the conversation. But we’re already at a point where the panel is unwieldy, and we don’t want to make it unwieldier.”
There are a couple other crucial constituencies that, as this conference is shaping up, won’t be adequately represented. The Walnut Room seats 350, Davis explains, “and at first we figured we’ll never fill the room.” Now it doesn’t seem big enough. He wants “every news-gathering entity in Chicago” represented, and if everybody does come—and every entity he’s contacted so far has sounded interested—there’ll be little if any room left for the public. The best Davis can do is promise that by the time of the conference he’ll have a Web site up and running where he’ll post an audio recording of the discussion the next day.
And the panel, for all its old-school experience, strikes me as short on the next generation of news producers and consumers—i.e., the people most likely to brim with original ideas about how to get from here to there, and about what there looks like. Beers told me about a couple of “buzzwords” he floated in San Francisco that caught on—presumably because the rescue process is still in that early, desperate stage when people cling to buzzwords. One was hybrid model—to describe for-profit online sites like his own that oversee not-for-profit reporting initiatives the foundations can get behind. The other was coopetition. That’s Beers’s term for a Common Market sort of online world in which sites link to each other in the name of synergy while promoting their individual brands. “Those ideas sound a little soft,” Beers admitted, “but they got it going.”
Even if Davis’s forum has to leave the public out, I halfway hope a mob descends on the Walnut Room, a crowd so large it forces the next step: a weekend conference of multiple panels, massive citizen participation, and a large contingent of politicians clamoring for the mike. If we news hacks are only talking to ourselves, we might as well keep it in the bars.
Davis was telling me about a conversation he’d had with a young friend of the family. “I was saying, ‘This is how journalism should be, a profession and not a hobby’—and she had this vague look in her eye and she said, ‘Why? All these people work for corporate conglomerates and speak the language of corporate conglomerates, and why should I care if they keep their jobs?'”
A turnaway crowd at Davis’s conference might be the first piece of evidence that old, worn out copy editors forced into early retirement aren’t the only people who don’t agree with her.
Ignorance Not Bliss, Just Ignorance
Writing at the online Daily Beast a few days after Rod Blagojevich was arrested last month, James Warren, formerly the Tribune‘s managing editor, wondered why his old paper’s editors were bragging about their “virginity.” If it was true that Blagojevich had tried to make the Tribune Company fire editorial writers the governor didn’t like, why would the editors boast “that none of their corporate superiors breathed a word of this to them”?
After all, said Warren, “the best editors make sure to teach owners not initially steeped in journalism [i.e., Sam Zell] that ignorance is not bliss, but just the opposite—it hangs the newsroom out to dry.”
That point can be debated. If Zell’s deal with his newsroom was that he’d leave it alone—well, he left it alone. Maybe the feds have zipped his lip. Maybe if and when Blagojevich called, he was wearing a wire.
But when will the Tribune tell us what really happened? The Illinois House simply parroted the federal complaint when it made the second count of its article of impeachment “the Governor’s plot to condition the awarding of State financial assistance to the Tribune Company on the firing of members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board.” The Tribune has a duty to go behind and beyond the complaint. The editorial-board charge is a big reason Blagojevich got impeached; the Tribune can’t simply be wondering along with the rest of us if it’s true.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites.