Friday, January 16, 2009

Funeral Arrangements



Today is the 144th Anniversary of the San Francisco Chronicle, which I celebrated by taking part in a panel discussion about whether or not its print edition will see a 145th birthday. It was a lunchtime event at the University Club on Nob Hill across the cable car tracks from the Fairmont Hotel.

The club is old-fashioned elegant with dark wood-paneled walls, a horseshoe bar that gave me a bit of buzz just to contemplate and a couple or three elderly members dozing peacefully in leather chairs. You can't smoke in the bar any more, but you can smoke on the terrace, and a faint odor from the cigars drifts in, a smell that touches the memory an instant after it touches the olfactory nerve.

The panel was in the big dining room on the floor below, a room with a wall of windows and good light. I'd say the crowd approached 50, mostly folk of my vintage who love print but love it in that special San Francisco way, recalling Herb Caen and the Chronicle in the Sixties, Seventies and even Eighties (when it was my playpen) when the newspaper was a little silly, a little naughty and very well written.

It was also a good enough newspaper for the news of the world if you weren't the most godawful snob.

As I was saying, the audience was print-loving, and I tried to prod them by saying we were talking about the wrong thing, that it didn't matter when the print edition died since most experts say print is dead so get over it. What mattered -- the question as it should have been phrased -- was how soon the Chronicle's Internet presence will figure out how to attract enough ad dollars to pay the salaries of some generous fraction of the existing newsroom.

"Four newspapers hit my lawn every morning," I said. But the perpetuation of print is a diversion. It's the perpetuation of journalism that matters because real journalism is platform agnostic.

And so on. My fellow panelists Carl Nolte -- USF grad and living treasure -- and Ken Garcia, the Examiner columnist, talked about how the journalists on the inside feel about their future. Nolte and Garcia seemed optimistic enough. Garcia said the Examiner's free-tabloid model is working; it's making money. And that is one possible model for the survival of print, a free "hyper local" tab during the week, a subscription broadsheet on Sunday.

In retrospect, I think perhaps I talked too much. I had done some research. I had note cards. As a reporter I was a good listener. But now I have the lecturer's habit of filling any large space with the sound of my own voice. One thing I mentioned but did not elaborate on is a point raised in that recent story in the Atlantic predicting -- or at least raising the possibility -- that the New York Times could go under during the next few months. One of the provocations the writer presented, which I have also been thinking about, is what portion of contemporary newspaper content really matters? The absence of which stories would do damage to the republic?

I recall the writer in the Atlantic said only two percent of what is currently in the Times matters to the health of the body politic, the original and still the most powerful argument for a free press. That number strikes me as a little low, and I think he may undervalue routine local news that incrementally helps us know what is going on and can guide or prompt our community involvement. But I agree with his basic idea. It's the investigative journalism and a few think pieces that matter -- if anything in a newspaper matters.

But isn't it the froth that, since the advent of the penny press 175 years ago, has brought the great mass of newspaper readership into the garish and vulgar tent? Didn't the money the froth made raise all boats, including those of the investigative reporters, whose stories are so often NOT those to which first we turn?

And now the Internet is bright shining froth as far as the eye can Google. Perhaps, on that first morning there is no more print newspaper, and the newspaper website is thin as thin can be given the lack of a newsroom to back it up, the disappearance of certain kinds of journalism will focus the attention of those to whom it matters, and they will figure out some mechanism to pay for it.

Massive tax breaks? Direct government support, even? Non-profit foundations subsidizing the public good? Throwback Men of Wealth and Conscience who are willing to buy a "content generator" and "lose a million dollars this year and a million dollars next year," happy in the knowledge that they won't be out of money for 60 years? Simple subscription models that serious readers will finally accept in spite of our visceral notion that "information wants to be free" -- meaning *for* free? Virtuous amateurs who take vows of poverty and service and give their lives to journalism as fair and balanced as it is passionate and full of advocacy?

I have no idea. But today I kept talking anyway. I used to be a journalist. Now I'm a college professor!

Now, a look at the old religion of newspaper salvation.


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4 comments:

Toan Lam said...

how about a bailout? tv and print journalists should band together beg for money. pretty please :)

Anonymous said...

Michael,

I think that the answer of 2% is symptomatic of the myopia of even many of the 'intellectual elite' in the US. We have reached a point where people fail to be shocked by almost anything, be it massive state sponsored fraud (see TARP and the rotating Wall St to Treasury-IMF-Etc door) or massive state sponsored death which most anyone of a passing knowledge of history or humanity knows is doomed to failure (never invade Afghanistan in any season indeed).

The ability to see beneath the layers of banality in the everyday and find that thread of truth/inspiration is lacking most everywhere. One could have alot of insight into the state of power and democracy just by reading the police blotter alone (copper thefts, hamburger shoplifters, hmmm good times indeed). I'd say its more like 50% but then what do I know. This man seems to know alot more:

http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2009/01/a-letter-from-the-grave.html

I live in Seattle again after having been abroad for a while in South America, ridding myself of wanderlust after 9 months. Here the Seattle PI is perishing and I believe something that is massively overlooked is the reliability of the electronic vs the physical. Be it votes, articles, state secrets, or books, each is too valuable to lose, and its well known that every digitally based system is extremely vulnerable to all sorts of maladies (hackers, magnetic degradation, solar flares [seriously], etc, etc). Recently a blog service lost everything after all their hard disks were written over:

http://www.transworldnews.com/NewsStory.aspx?id=72769&cat=1

I'm not a full blow Luddite (though after working in the tech industry since graduation, 1999, God help us if the future is in their hands, I'm personally looking to move onto to something more meaningful) but we are as caught up in the tech party as we were in the mortage party. Ouch:

http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2009/jan/10/legacy/?editorialcartoons

I think we are putting all our eggs in one very fragile basket but going all digital, however strange that sounds. This last year has shown that Black Swan type events are actually more common and thus we should be going for system resiliency not just efficiency. It turns out resilience is actually quite efficent in another way, rebuilding from scratch really sucks...

I think you are definitely right to ask how will journalism that is professional and meaningful survive but I believe that it requires an honesty about how the US got here and about other parts of the whole that might fail. I tend to think folks like Moris Berman are right Dark Ages ahead. And all these are topics I doubt even Obama himself can bring up. Anyways I'm not even a professor and I've managed to ramble on.

Thanks for the interesting post and hopefully some of this was of interest to you.

Best,

F.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Toan:

You're making a joke, but I'm all for it. Practically speaking, tax incentives might help. I'm going to look about me and see who has come up with a reasonable proposal when it comes to taxes and newspapers, etc.

F:

The fragility of information in the digital age is disturbing whenever you stop to think about it, though one only does under a bad mood. I would like to think that some eccentric billionaire is freeze-drying paper copies of everything useful or possible useful and hiding it away in a vault under some mountain so that it at least has the chance of re-emerging after the world ends – and starts again (we hope). I love print with both eyes and fingertips, but the surveys make it pretty clear that guys your age – well, you’ve moved along now; it’s guys younger than you who are the greater problem – don’t read hard copy newspapers. The argument is that given the lack of a model to preserve decent journalistic values online, well, we better concentrate our limited powers where it matters, on trying to get valuable news content on the net.

Now, I need to look at your beautiful links.

Anthony Malandra said...

Dear Professor,

Thank you once again for your participation. You did not talk too much at all, but instead added valuable perspective to what turned out to be a melodious trio of fine panelists on a delightful afternoon. We look forward to your future participation on media discussions and will be ready in the distant future to process your membership application when the time comes for you to join those stogie savoring sages around the card table out on the 4th Floor terrace.

Sincerely,
Tony Malandra
Events Committee Member
University Club