Journalism Needs More Ombudsmen AND News Councils

Craig Silverman gives keynote speech to #ONO2011 meeting in Montreal. John Hamer of WNC (bald spot on left) listens along with Michael Getler, ombudsman of PBS (bald head on right).

“It’s really important that we have accountability mechanisms in journalism. When it comes to our own accountability, most news organizations are doing a pretty poor job, to be blunt.”

Craig Silverman, in keynote speech to Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) annual convention, Montreal

Craig Silverman, a regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and The Toronto Star, is also author of “Regret the Error – How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.” 

In his talk to the world’s ombudsmen last week, Silverman cited several studies which found that 40 to 60 percent of news stories contained some kind of error! A comprehensive survey of U.S. newspapers found the highest error rate on record.
“We’ve been telling people for literally hundreds of years that when we make a mistake we correct it,” Silverman said. But the U.S. study found a correction rate of only about 2 percent.

“That is pretty outrageous,” Silverman said. “If we’re only correcting 2 percent of errors, we’re not meeting our own standards. It represents a serious failure on the part of news organizations.”

“Reporters will be inclined to not want to run a correction, because they’ve been trained that that’s a bad thing,” Silverman said. “They need to change that attitude.” He’s right on both counts.

What’s more, errors are “now forever,” because they are cached online, and spread worldwide by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., Silverman noted. Dealing with complaints about errors is one of the jobs of news ombudsmen – and also of news or press councils.

I joined the Organization of News Ombudsmen as an associate member last year, partly because I love the acronym – ONO! – but also because the Washington News Council is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for news media in this state.

Unfortunately, there are no full-time ombudsmen at any news organizations in our state anymore. That’s too bad. Over the years when I was at The Seattle Times, they had four different ombudsmen. A couple of them were pretty good. I edited their columns, which ran on the editorial pages.

Ombudsmen hear and respond to complaints from readers, viewers or listeners about news stories that are arguably inaccurate, unfair, imbalanced and/or unethical. That’s also what news or press councils do – and what we have done for the past 13 years.

Some say ombudsmen – since they are employed by the news outlets, have offices in or near the newsrooms, and generally know the editors, reporters, and producers – can deal with complaints more effectively. Of course, since their salaries are paid by those they are hired to critique, some also may question their level of independence. But most try to be fair, thorough and constructively critical. Many do criticize their own newspapers, broadcast stations, and/or websites strongly – and they’re often not too popular in newsrooms.

Also, the number of ombudsmen around the world has declined over the years – especially in the United States. ONO now has about 60 members worldwide, with only 20 in the U.S. Many media organizations say they simply can’t afford the position anymore, when they don’t even have enough reporters to cover their local communities.

Ombudsmen’s jobs have been eliminated at many American newspapers in recent decades – including at The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the same time, some of the best American newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today – have created or enhanced the position, although some are called “public editors” or “reader representatives.” There are also experienced ombudsmen at most major broadcast news outlets worldwide. In this country, only PBS, NPR and now ESPN have ombudsmen.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman who now is executive director of ONO, told his colleagues in Montreal: “The ombudsman’s job is like being on the front lines of the First Amendment…We’re in between the public and the editors. We point out the warts and flaws. The [news] organization doesn’t want to hear it. We’re speaking truth to power.”

Jacob Mollerup, the current president of ONO whose title is “Listeners and Viewers Editor” at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, wryly described the job as “a lonely hell.”

He was only half joking. ONO members often say they have “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” Most journalists don’t like to hear complaints about their work and are reluctant to make corrections or explain their performance in public – which is what they always demand of those they cover. Double standard? Unquestionably.

The annual ONO conference is an opportunity for attendees to come together, swap stories, compare tactics, and commiserate with others who are in the same boat. Three days of panels, speakers and “shop talk” – with a few dinners and receptions thrown in – clearly have a therapeutic effect.

A draft business plan, sent out in advance and discussed on the final day of the gathering, notes that ONO’s first goal should be as a “meeting place and discussion forum.” The Montreal conference, for the first time, was simultaneously translated into English, French and Spanish, which was a great help to all.

Another goal is outreach – promoting ombudsmanship in cooperation with partners around the world. That includes to “be a serious partner in media projects where different organizations join forces in order to promote media accountability.”

A third is to expand the organization: “ONO should welcome members of independent press councils as associates.” I was invited to speak on a panel at their convention last year at Oxford University on how ombudsmen and press councils can work more closely together. And Mollerup recently attended the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) conference.

A final goal is to keep an open mind for new projects and ways of promoting media accountability – including in cyberspace. That’s precisely what the WNC has been doing for the last few years, and I shared some of our ideas with ONO members:

  1. Report an Error. Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs have developed a new online “Report an Error” system now being used by about 100 news sites and blogs. The WNC has been working with them and we now have the “Report an Error” widget on this site. We invite readers to report errors in Pacific Northwest media as we test this intriguing new system.
  2. NewsTrust.net. We also invite them to nominate and review state and regional stories on our NewsTrust.net widget. You must register to become a reviewer and it’s a great tool, especially to praise high-quality stories.
  3. Online community.  People may join our online community and begin participating in discussions of various topics. Our groups have grown steadily.
  4. Online Media Guide. We’re also developing a new Online Media Guide (OMG) for Washington news and information sources, which will be a valuable resource for journalists, public-affairs professionals, politicians, academics, etc.

One of the most interesting speakers in Montreal was Guy Amyot, executive secretary of the Press Council of Quebec. His council, unlike some others in Canada and elsewhere, hears complaints about print, broadcast and online news media, not just newspapers.

“It is the liberty of the press to be independent from any power structure, but because of this freedom they have to be accountable,” Amyot said. “The media are not obliged to name ombudsmen and are also not obliged to join press councils.” But, he strongly suggested, they should do both. He’s absolutely right.

In order to maintain public trust and credibility, all those practicing journalism need to be more transparent, accountable and open. Ombudsmen and news councils can clearly help – if more journalists would only listen.

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Reportback – Hacks/Hackers Seattle & Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Challenge

Mozilla is best known for Firefox, the open source darling loved by millions which showed us that a browser is more than just a way to load websites, it’s a way to customize your experience of the web itself. Under new direction from Mark Surman, Mozilla is growing new legs to go beyond Firefox. They recently launched #Drumbeat as an effort to do more than just build portals, they are now seeking to change the flesh and bones of the internet itself to make it more open, accessible, and free (see project examples from drumbeat.org).

It was recently announced that Mozilla received a hefty sum of money from the Knight Foundation to bring journalism along for the ride.

The three year Knight-Mozilla News Challenge dubbed #MoJo (for Mozilla + Journalism) is now in full throttle with five news partners on board (BBC, Al-Jazeera, Boston Globe, Zeit Online, and The Guardian) who will host five fellows with full salary to innovate from inside the newsroom. 10 more fellows will come along the way in the next coming years, but until then, the heat is on and challenge submissions are underway.

Mozilla asked me to link up with the Seattle chapter of Hacks/Hackers, an organization that shares a similar MoJo hybrid theory of bringing together journalists (hacks) + technologists (hackers) with the goal of changing news for the better. One week later we threw together a sold out Brainstorm 2011 that brought in journalists and technologists throughout the city who came to mash up ideas and enter the challenge. [Read more...]

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What I Read – Martha Kongsgaard

Martha Kongsgaard was born and raised in Napa, Calif., to a family of jurists, grape growers and cattle ranchers. Kongsgaard met Peter Goldman in law school, married him in 1988 when they founded the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation. Her community activities currently include participation on the Washington Women’s Foundation, the national board and the executive committees of Earthjustice and IslandWood, where she is a founding board member. She recently chaired several major capital campaigns, including the Cascade Agenda, the expansion of IslandWood and the building of the LEED-certified Community Center at the New High Point. Kongsgaard has served as the president of Philanthropy Northwest and has spoken broadly about philanthropy and the environmental movement to wide and diverse audiences for the past 20 years. She is currently serving as Chair of the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership.  She has three sons and lives in West Seattle with her husband, an environmental public interest lawyer, Peter Goldman.

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1. What are your favorite local news outlets? Why?

West Seattle Blog to tell me why the ambulance just drove down my street;

West Seattle Herald to tell me about local schools – their administrators, school board members, and their students’ triumphs and challenges, for Its Police blotter, and to know who Ms. Hi-Yu will be this summer;

The Seattle Times, because it is there;

The Puget Sound Partnership’s press clippings;

Sightline’s aggregation of all things enviro;

PI on line, because i miss the old guard;

Publicola, because they are in the minute, young and opinionated (plus i can hear them on the other side of my wall at work);

The Stranger + Weekly when I can;

Eastside Business Journal if i were awake more hours;

Seattle Magazine, because it comes to me online which tells me who is wearing what (but not why).

Grist, but it’s not really local.

.

2. What do you consider “must reads” every day? Must watch? Must hear?

The New York Times,

The Seattle Times,

(crossword puzzles in both)

Morning Edition and All things Considered.

CSPAN

Mike Allen’s Playlist

I’ve been known to watch FOX news;

[also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Review of Books;

The New Republic, now and again]

. [Read more...]

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Putting Journalism Back into Focus at Seattle’s Town Hall

The Town Hall discussion, moderated by former Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher (left) with Tom Rosenstiel (center) and Bill Kovach (right)

While many hail the awe and power of the internet as the most revolutionary medium since the printing press, its most complained about side effect is information overload. Popular web evangelist Clay Shirky likes to say, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure,” and there are plenty of technological filters in place to help us (Google, Wikipedia, Digg, Newsvine, and so on…). Smart technology, however, doesn’t make up for smart people, which is why the new book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload is an important addition to the discussion.

If you’re a reporter that’s been through journalism school, then you’re already familiar with authors and veteran journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel who penned The Elements of Journalism back in 2001 . Following their long successful careers as reporters for staple publications such as Newsweek, The New York Times, and The LA Times, the two are now hard at work trying to keep the values of journalism itself alive. Rosenstiel stays busy with the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Pew Research, and Kovach runs the Committee for Concerned Journalists (after spending 11 years with Harvard’s Nieman Lab). The duo made an appearance at Seattle’s Town Hall last Thursday to discuss the impact of journalism’s newest and arguably most potent element yet, citizens.

There are many interesting ways to compare the traditional media paradigm with the new era of citizen journalism, but perhaps the most dramatic is the shift in power dynamics. Gone are the days where we had a single trusted brand telling us “and that’s the way it is” with no recourse for dispute except a shot in the dark known as the letter to the editor. With an infinite supply of places to get news, the authority of the newspaper has greatly diminished.

While this conversation has been rehashed many times over the last decade, Rosenstiel and Kovach added some new insight to consider. One would assume that more democratic media equals a greater check on power, but as Rosenstiel pointed out, the irony is that more media gives more power into the hands of those who wish to manipulate it. A press release that was turned down by a major newspaper has many more places to go and spawn without first being vetted by trained journalists. Rosenstiel also disputed the notion that our news consumption has grown increasingly partisan, saying that of the top visited websites for news, 80% are what can be considered traditional non-partisan sources (i.e. Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, AOL, etc.) It’s only after we get the story that we turn to opinionated sources to help digest and analyze the information.

In Blur, the authors detail six essential questions that all consumers of information must consider:

1. What kind of content am I encountering?

2. Is the information complete? If not, what’s missing?

3. Who or what are the sources and why should I believe them?

4. What evidence is presented and how was it tested or vetted?

5. What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?

6. Am I learning what I need?

The last chapter of the book offers advice on how journalism needs to change in order to adapt to the shift in relationship between reporter and audience. As Kovach noted in the talk, newspapers who once said “trust me” are now being asked to “show me.” It’s no longer enough for a reporter to give a summary, they need to offer the database. The new function of the press is to empower the audience to take action, use tools, and find information for themselves. Perhaps this explains why The Seattle Times won its Pulitzer through its use of Twitter, Google Wave, and other participatory tools.

There were many good questions from the audience about the responsibility of the press, and perhaps the most interesting question came from former Seattle PI reporter Monica Guzman, who asked about the responsibility of the citizen. Taking the idea of good Samaritan law a step further, she asked “If you see news and have the tools and don’t use them, are you being irresponsible as a citizen?” This definitely merits a lot of thought, as we’ve seen situations where citizen journalism was enormously valuable (i.e. the 2009 protests following the Iranian Election) as well as harmful (i.e. the inaccurate details of the Fort Hood shooting where reporters relied on a witness’s tweets).

Despite the skepticism that runs through their blood, both Kovach and Rosenstiel agreed that while there were virtues of the past that need to instilled today, we are overall better off in the new era of people powered reporting.

Watch video of the event below, courtesy of the Seattle Channel and Puget Sound Access

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What I Read: Dave Dederer

Presidents of the United States of America guitarist and singer Dave Dederer isn’t just a musician.

He’s also active in the business world. Dederer develops digital music projects for HP and oversees the Presidents’ business dealings. He calls himself “both a small business owner and a corporate soldier.”

Dederer’s reading list reflects his diverse interests. He’s regularly checking out NPR, local and national newspapers, magazines, tennis web sites, bike blogs, and novels.

So far, he’s still passing on Facebook and Twitter, neither of which he considers real news sources.

Here’s what Dederer told me about what he’s reading.

1. What are your favorite local news outlets? Why?

RIP, my all-time favorite local news source was Emmett Watson’s daily column in The P-I and The Seattle Times, in which he was forever championing his vision for Lesser Seattle.  We could use more Lesser Seattle these days.

I suppose I get most of my local news without realizing it, picking it up mixed in with the NPR programming on KUOW or KPLU.  I listen to the radio in the morning while shaving and such and I guess that’s where I find out about explosions and scandals and other must-know items, whether local or otherwise.

I tend to check in at seattletimes.com once a day to look at local news and local sports.  And I pick up The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly and give them each the three minutes they deserve once a week.  Got to stay au courant, you know.

2. What do you consider “must reads” every day? Must watch? Must hear?

The older I get the less I care about news in general.  If something truly important happens, I figure I’m going to hear about it.

That said, here are some things I look at absolutely every day:

  • nytimes.com‘s’ “most emailed” list — one or more of the articles is always worth reading; this is where I take the pulse of the nation, as it were, and stay up to date on national politics and opinion
  • digitalmusicnews.com‘s daily email newsletter — the most up-to-date oracle for my particular business sector
  • finance.yahoo.com — am I broke yet?
  • tennis.com home page — I took up tennis in earnest two years ago and I’m a pathetic, helpless addict

I end up listening to KUOW or KPLU every day at some point, and usually KING-FM, too, though not much news there, just actual music played by people with actual talent.

I never really thought about it before answering these questions, but I go WAY out of my way to tune into NPR, KBCS and KEXP for certain programs.  I listen to Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion pretty much every week.  I love the funk and old school R&B on KBCS on Friday and Saturday nights, and I also like Tuesday night’s Americana Road Songs show and the transportive Hawaii Radio Connection Saturdays at noon.  My favorite KEXP program is also their longest-running: Saturday’s Positive Vibrations reggae show.

I don’t watch anything on a normal TV because we don’t have a TV.  On a good night, I get to watch All My Children on Hulu with my wife after our kids are asleep.

3. Do you consume news through: print, television, radio, laptop, smart phone, ipad, podcasts, other?

Yes!

4. Do you use Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter for news and information?

No!  “About to board flight to Houston” and “OMG we just ordered 50 shots of Jagermeister” don’t count as news to me.

5. What online news sites or aggregators do you visit regularly?

nytimes.com, seattletimes.com, billboard.biz, tennis.com, cyclingnews.com,

6. Do you regularly visit any individual blogs for news, analysis and opinion?

I’m a bike commuter and I very much enjoy local legend Kent Peterson’s Kent’s Bike Blog: http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/

7. Have your news consumption habits changed in the last few years? If so, how?

I realize in answering these questions that my news reading has gone from nearly 100% print 5-6 years ago to 100% digital today.  I think the only things I still regularly read in print are The Economist, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

8. Do you read for fun? If so, what? Last novel you read? Non-fiction book?

Yes, every day. This just in, kids, reading is FUN!

I read lots and lots of magazines.  More and more I read them or their equivalents online.  Disturbingly, often on my Palm Pre or iPod Touch while sitting in bed.

I just finished reading the galleys for my sister Claire Dederer’s forthcoming book, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, due from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a couple of months.  It’s a fine memoir — a memoir’s a risky proposition, especially when all the principals are still alive, as they are in this case — and I’m so proud of her.

My undergraduate degree is in American and English Literature.  I read almost nothing but novels from about age 12 until I finished my B.A.at 22.  I don’t believe I’ve read one since.  Wait a second, I take that back — at my mother’s recommendation, I recently read Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which I very much enjoyed.  But it didn’t make me want to read more novels and, in fact, reminded me in its greatness of just how bad most novels are.

Most of my reading focuses on figuring out how to get really good at whatever sport I’m currently obsessed with and/or how to be less of an asshole.  My recent tennis addiction has me reading and re-reading Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert, Think To Win by Dr. Allen Fox, Open by Andrew Agassi, Hardcourt Confidential by Patrick McEnroe, etc., etc, etc. ad nauseam, except not to me and I can’t seem to find enough tennis books to feed my appetite.  On the asshole front, I lean toward the Zen approach and I’m currently re-reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and A New Earth.  Not sure if it’s working, but I keep reading regardless.

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Seattle editors weigh in on anonymous comments

(Weigh in with your own thoughts in our community forum)

It happens every time a news story on a controversial topic hits the web: Angry rants, nasty name-calling, personal attacks, and defensive replies.

All can be found regularly in the comments sections of online news articles and opinion columns, including many blogs. Some topics, such as public safety, racial conflicts, immigration policy, and urban bicycling, seem to draw the most vehement responses.

Many readers – probably now the majority – post their comments anonymously. Unlike printed letters to the editors, on which most newspapers ask writers to include a real name, street address and telephone number for verification, online news sites don’t typically require full public identification. Even if commenters are asked to register online, they may use nicknames to conceal their true identities.

The Buffalo News recently became the first major American daily newspaper to ban anonymous comments on its website, which provoked nationwide discussion on the policy.

As a journalist, regular online news consumer, and occasional commenter, I go back and forth on my own view toward anonymous comments. I’m accustomed to putting my name next to my opinions in articles and on the web, so I don’t mind identifying myself in a discussion forum. I figure that if I’m willing to write an opinion, I should be willing to back it up with my name.

However, I’m also well aware that many people – including some of my friends and family –  are far less comfortable leaving their names on open forums on the Internet. They aren’t accustomed to being a public face or name, and they worry

about privacy and personal attacks. In some cases, they may be commenting on topics that relate to their own workplace or social networks, and feel they can be more honest by remaining anonymous.

As an advocate for free and open dialogue, I’d rather see comment sections filled with posts rather than completely empty. And, for my own personal needs as a journalist, comments often help me write a better story or follow up news with subsequent articles. I do cringe, however, at times when reading particularly nasty attacks in online forums.

When Washington News Council president John Hamer asked me if I wanted to weigh in on the issue, I decided that given my own conflicted views on the subject, I’d like to hear what local editors are doing and how they feel about anonymous comments. I emailed questions to The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut, West Seattle Blog, and the Federal Way Mirror, and a few other news outlets that did not respond. Here are their responses:

[Read more...]

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WNC Awards Two $2,000 Scholarships

The Washington News Council awarded two $2,000 scholarships to students planning careers in communications. The scholarships are named after the late Dick Larsen and Herb Robinson, both longtime editors at The Seattle Times.

WNC President John Hamer, who worked with Larsen and Robinson for many years on The Times’ editorial board, presented the scholarships during a June 24 reception at the WNC office, located above the Pyramid Alehouse in Seattle.

The 2010 WNC Dick Larsen Scholarship winner is:

Peter Sessum, 38, a junior at the University of Washington who is studying journalism. He is a staff writer for The Daily. He was formerly a student at Edmonds Community College and editor-in-chief of the Triton Review campus newspaper.

Before that, Peter was a liaison officer with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and an international advisor in the poppy-eradication program there.

He is a member of the Asian American Journalists Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

John Hamer & Pete Sessum

In an essay accompanying his scholarship application, Peter wrote:

“Media is the watchdog of the government, but someone needs to watch the watchdog. That is the purpose of the people. As journalists, we should be transparent, accountable and open. And the people should be able to expect that of us. It is the duty of the reporter to inform the people of the issues at hand. Then, the people can make informed decisions.”

The 2010 Herb Robinson Scholarship winner is:

Alexander Herbig, 18, who is graduating from Mountlake Terrace High School and will attend Seattle Pacific University in the fall. He plans to study communications, global development and psychology.

During high school, Alex was a Young Life leader and camp counselor. His senior project was Simply Haiti, which launched two days before the Haitian earthquake and raised $30,000 for a feeding program and earthquake relief. He also was a photojournalist and editorial writer for The Hawkeye school newspaper, and MVP on the junior varsity soccer team.

Alex Herbig & John Hamer

In an essay accompanying his application, Alex wrote:

“I feel as though trust is a journalist’s best friend. Journalists have the ability to twist a story just about any way they want, making the good guy look like the villain or the other way around. Not only that but their stories can create some serious consequences for the person or company in the story. With this power comes the responsibility of the journalist to be trustworthy.”

Scholarships are funded by donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. Since 2000, the WNC has awarded 22 scholarships with a total value of nearly $30,000.

CONTACT: John Hamer, President, WNC – 206.262.9793 (info@wanewscouncil.org)

[Read more...]

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Who will hold the news media accountable?

OXFORD UNIVERSITY, ENGLAND – Is there a need for media accountability in the chaotic new world of online journalism? If so, who will hold the media accountable?

In-house ombudsmen? Outside news and press councils? Independent media critics?

The “blogosphere”? All of the above?

Those were among the existential questions at the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual convention at Oxford University from May 12-15. The gathering was hosted by the Reuters Center for the Study of Journalism, headquartered at Oxford.

I was invited to join a panel: “Press Councils and Ombudsmen: A New Partnership?”

[Read more...]

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Symposium’s Main Event at WSU’s Murrow College Draws Hundreds of Students, Academics, Journalists, and Public

MurrowPULLMAN — “Would Murrow have tweeted?”

That question from a member of the audience at the Edward R. Murrow Symposium’s evening event drew a big laugh from the large crowd. The panelists – Deborah Amos of NPR, Robin Fields of ProPublica, and Judy Woodruff of PBS – weren’t sure how to answer it. None admitted to being active on Twitter.

But Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, had opened the 36th annual Murrow Symposium on April 20 with this question: “How does Murrow’s legacy fit into the new media landscape?”

In between, there were many hours of panels, workshops, networking, chatting and debating about the chaotic and uncertain future of what used to be called the “news biz.” [Read more...]

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30-something v. 60-something: Blogging across the demographic divide

photo by Jay Cox :: http://www.flickr.com/jaycoxfilm/Question of the week: Do you still subscribe to a printed daily newspaper?

by Washington News Council’s Heidi Dietrich and John Hamer

About Heidi DietrichNO! by Heidi Dietrich, age 30

This winter, for the first time since college, I stopped subscribing to a daily newspaper.

It pained me to phone in the cancellation to the Seattle Times’ circulation department. I kept the subscription going for the past couple of years because I couldn’t stand to contribute to the sad decline of the print newspaper business. It’s a problem that hits close to home. After seven years at the Puget Sound Business Journal, I was laid off last April due to sinking revenue.

It also hurt because I grew up in a newspaper family. My dad worked first for The Columbian in Vancouver, and then for The Seattle Times as I was growing up. The newspaper was a part of daily life. When my sister and I were young, my father read the comics to us at the Sunday breakfast table. Later, we read the articles on our own, vying for the Sunday travel and lifestyle sections. As an adult, I looked forward to spending a few moments with the newspaper and a cup of coffee in the morning.

But in the last few years, the daily newspaper began to change. Thanks to shrinking revenue, the paper itself grew smaller and smaller, with less in-depth features and enterprise reporting. Sections were eliminated or combined. Letters to the editor were relegated to a small part of the page.

And, most importantly, I’d already read the articles. I’d seen the news appear on my Twitter feed and gone to a number of online news sites to get the stories. By the time the paper landed on my doorstep, it was old news. More and more, keeping the subscription felt like a charity case.

I’d held out far longer than most of my peers. Most of my friends never even started subscribing to a daily newspaper, since they could already rely on the Internet after graduating from college. Others subscribed for a time but abandoned the practice as online news became more and more prevalent. Most newspaper subscribers I knew were my parents’ and grandparents’ age.

It’s been a few months since I stopped receiving a newspaper, and it’s interesting to see how my news consumption habits have changed. I read just as much news as before, but less from The Seattle Times, as I’m more apt to link to a variety of news sites. I regularly check national papers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, neighborhood news sites such as MyBallard, and niche web sites such as TechFlash or Cliff Mass’ weather blog. Beyond the serious news sites, I visit blogs on cooking, running, the outdoors, and music.

I’m just as likely to browse an article at 9 p.m. as at the breakfast table. I learned about the Lusty Lady closing and a modern downtown Seattle highrise being torn down yesterday afternoon on Twitter. I find I most often first hear about breaking news via Tweets and Facebook posts, and then link to the actual articles on a news site.

What about you? Are you still subscribing? Leave a comment here.

About John HamerYES! by John Hamer, age 64

This morning, like most mornings, I walked out to the end of my driveway and picked up The Seattle Times.

I laid it out on the kitchen counter, poured myself a cup of coffee, filled a bowl with cereal, sliced a couple of strawberries on top, and began to read my morning newspaper.

Front page. Editorial page. Northwest section. Comics. Sports page. OK, I just skim some of it, but I always find something interesting and worth reading. And I usually glance at the ads, especially the full-page ones.

Am I part of a dying breed? Sometimes I feel that way.

But when I moderated a panel at Seattle Rotary a couple of weeks ago on the future of newspapers, I asked for a show of hands: How many people still read The Seattle Times on paper? Of the 500 Rotarians present, at least three-fourths of them raised their hands. OK, there was a lot of grey hair in this crowd….

Then I asked: How many also read The Seattle Times online? More than half of those in the room raised their hands. (David Boardman, Times executive editor and one of my panelists, began to applaud.)

But as the blog by Heidi Dietrich on this page makes clear, many younger people have stopped subscribing to newspapers and get most of their news online. (BTW, welcome to Heidi, who will now be blogging regularly on this page about media issues and ethics.)

Newspapers used to have a kind of monopoly on the news, but in the Internet era those days are gone. People have many more options for news and information, and the mainstream newspapers are struggling to adjust to the “new news ecosystem.”

We’re clearly in a transition period where some people (like me) still like the touch and feel of newsprint in our hands and others (like Heidi) prefer to get their news electronically, whether on a laptop, Blackberry, Kindle, iPhone or iPad or other device.

Granted, I also read at least a half-dozen other news websites online, however, including some that gather stories from dozens of news sites all over the world. Today, news junkies can mainline online until they virtually overdose on news.

Still, there’s something about having that newspaper with my coffee in the morning. The crinkly feel of newsprint. The faint scent of ink. The full-page color ads.

How about you? Comments welcome! Leave a comment here.

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