Thoughts on Future of News panel at WHYY

Edited:Future of News panel
The panel, from right to left, was moderated by WHYY’s Chris Satullo and consisted of Matt Golas, Managing Editor, PlanPhilly.com; Sandra Shea, Editorial Page Editor, Daily News; Joey Sweeney of Philebrity.com and Bruce Schimmel, Founder, Philadelphia City Paper;.

As these panels tend to go these days, really no new ground was covered, but it’s hard to argue with getting accomplished people in a room to talk about it.

Technically Philly partnered with Young Involved Philadelphia this past Thursday to host a panel discussion on the Future of News.

A heavy reliance on foundation funding, a step into telecom, donation and membership programs and other methods that have been argued and re-argued all made brief appearances in last night’s 90-minute event held in a small civic space at the headquarters of WHYY.

Though the sentiment wasn’t hearkened on enough for perhaps the taste of those more obsessively engaged in the conversation, the wider perspective was brought to light.

“It’s really what all of us are doing,” said Sandra Shea, the editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Daily News.

The panel was about as high-profile a media collective as you’ll get in Philadelphia outside, say, a Gene Roberts-era Inquirer reunion or the Pen & Pencil Club on a not-depressing night:

  • Chris Satullo, Director of Civic Engagement, WHYY
  • Matt Golas, Managing Editor, Plan Philly
  • Sandra Shea, Editorial Page Editor, Daily News
  • Joey Sweeney, Founder, Philebrity.com
  • Bruce Schimmel, Founder, Philadelphia City Paper

Each brought their perspectives to bear on what exactly is the future of sustainable news: Golas, whose $250,000 per-annum, development-and-zoning-news site is funded by the William Penn Foundation, seemed to make clear his hope that philanthrophic organizations would continue to take a large burden; Shea spoke about partnerships continuing legacy trustee news operations; Sweeney, who remained the most reserved on the topic, danced around filling a vacancy left elsewhere (in his case, he said, the slow-to-develop Web presence of alternative weeklies, like those that formerly employed him) and building a business and Schimmel, among other references, wondered aloud if others felt necessary and plausible the possibility of tax fund, not unlike what fuels the BBC or an item in the recently released Downie and Schudon report.

[Full Disclosure: Philadelphia media is incestuous, so I’m familiar, to varying degrees, with all five involved with the panel, all of whom I also respect and professionally admire. That doesn’t lend itself well to a lack of bias, so let it be known.]

Hear a dozen strong audio clips of the conversation here.

MY TAKE ON THE CONVERSATION

That’s all well and good and worth airing out for an audience made up largely of college students and those interested in the fate but not closely following this dialogue. For others, it’s beginning to come clear that perhaps a larger part of the next step in journalism is more likely a lot about is time and mitigating losses.

The death chime of newspapers may have grown louder in recent years less because their readership and business model has proportionally sped up but more because of two outside influences: (1) a historic recession that frightened print advertisers even more quickly than transition to the unknowns of the Web and (2) legacy costs, overhead and debt obligations that blistered the bear’s worth of big corporations, including those that owned newspapers.

So the newspaper bubble bursts more quickly now and so the layoffs and more shuttered newsrooms, but the recession will fade away in strict economic terms in following two-three years, and, while it won’t all come back, some advertising will. While not all, some lessons will be learned.

And then, newspapers will continue to fall as a primary cultural institution, but at a more slowed pace, I’d be, leaving more time for business solutions, products and alternative news operations to develop.

So, again, in my mind, for now, the (more near) future of news is about those two major things:

(a) time — waiting out a recession and other business platforms, many of which are already underway and maturing

(b) mitigating losses — making sure the recession pangs, loss of jobs, falling payment and stressed news 2.0 models don’t do too much damage to what is meant to make up the rich fabric of news

FOUNDATIONS

Perhaps because Sweeney, who supports his girlfriend and himself through advertising revenue generated on his notoriously snarky, five-year-old arts and entertainment blog Philebrity, was, as he always is, sure to mention how limited his, yes undisclosed, profit margin is, he wasn’t a big part of the night’s themes.

What seemed to me to make up a big part of the conversation was the role of foundations and philanthropic giving institutions like Penn and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The first question moderator Satullo asked the panel was what the biggest success in new media for Philadelphia. All, three overtly and Sweeney perhaps by commission, said, at least in part, Plan Phily, which in its three years of coverage has done an excellent job.

Despite their excellent work, I’m not sure I’m satisfied with that as an answer yet frustrated because I think it’s true. Plan Philly is a fine niche product that is excellently reported, but its traffic appears to be no runaway success and it is, at the end of the day, funded by a foundation. It’s not sustainable.

That said, I don’t know if I have a better answer.

It did bring up an interesting portion of the event, which is recorded in the poor quality video below.

Controversial and critical Sweeney, who, if not the best trafficked is certainly the best-known blogger in Philadelphia, was asked if he would take foundation money.

OUR WORK

YIP did the hard work of arranging the panel and the location, as we at Technically Philly came a bit late onto the partnership scene. We handled some promotion, offered some advice and also shared a clutch of our experience and interest in following the conversations that surround the future of news.

Below read the questions that Brian James Kirk and I offered the YIP team to supplement the insightful thoughts of moderator Chris Satullo.

  • There’s been a lot of talk that non-profit, funded news organizations will carry the torch of accountability journalism. Is that the only answer? Will for-profit news ever again fund that civic duty? What will we lose if things change in this way?
  • Is there now or will there ever be again enough money to fund covering every nook and cranny of the city professionally? What role might citizen journalism need to play?
  • Among nonprofit, online, or offline news sources in coming years, which do you think will have more professionally-trained journalists on staff? What does that mean for news?
  • Web metrics are still in their infancy. How will Web metrics improve and how will that affect the way you market your site to advertisers?
  • Will that increasing reliability of Web metrics make large site traffic more or less important in the future?
  • What role does, will or should aggregation have in the future of news?
  • Now that advertisers can potentially fund their own publications using online technologies in the same way that news publications can, and as audiences shift from general to niche outlets, why is there a need for advertisers to look to news brands as a place to connect with their consumer audience?
  • How might mobile, open source software and other technologies and Web-based platforms be leveraged to reduce costs for news operations? How are they already? Can they have any role in lowering overhead, improving profitability and overcoming revenue lost in past decades?
  • Mobile seems to be an untapped resource in terms of the number of consumers with phones and the lack of attention given to delivering news on that platform. Is mobile a priority?

Edited: Future of News panel audience

CONCLUSIONS

More than 80 by my count attended, which was impressive considering the Phillies were on later that night and 115 had reserved a spot — a fine percentage yield for a World Series night. Most seem interested, even the cohort there as part of a St. Joseph’s University journalism class.

But then, it’s an interesting topic and five bright people were on a stage talking about the future of news, a sexy topic.

I enjoyed myself, but with these conversations, many might feel pressed to encourage a larger presence of business-minded news panelists. Sweeney is closed-mouth about his finances, or so it seems. Golas is clearly a talented editor, but he has deep-pocketed benefactors. Shea is strictly an editorial fixture and, though Schimmel founded a publication, he sold it in the mid 1990s and remains more on the creation side of things.

I also found it curious that when Satullo did pose a question about the future of mobile and its role with news — a simplified version of one of the questions Brian and I submitted — all the panelists seemed to pass, aside, perhaps from a brief passage by Sweeney about its capacity to span the digital divide. Mobile’s dissemination power and increasing presence — more than a quarter of U.S. mobile phone subscribers will use the Web on their phones next year — seems likely to serve a very large role in the business strategies of news organizations in the future.

It’s all about time and mitigating losses.

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Thanks much to YIP, the panelists, Satullo, the moderator, and everyone who attended. More than 1,200 words in response must mean something.