Future of News panel for Sunday Breakfast Club @ Union League

The historic, 145-year-old Union League of Philadelphia located on the Avenue of the Arts.

A tidy and frail little old man asked me to direct him to the coat rack. To walk him around the corner from the long and elegant main corridor of the nearly 150-year-old Union League of Philadelphia was my first deed.

If nothing else, it made for interesting conversation when I made it to the elaborate second-floor President’s Ballroom, featuring thirty foot ceilings, a spectacular chandelier and portraits of dour looking old white men. For an half-hour or so after 5:30 p.m., I handled a rum and coke and ambled about the pre-event cocktail reception of the Sunday Breakfast Club, a not-quite cloak-and-dagger, invitation-only private society for organization executives.

Perhaps nearly 200 members and guests of the seven decades young group patronized the open bar, chatted and nibbled appetizers. I did the same, more than a handful of times being approached by some degree of interest in the 20-something with a broken brown belt with black shoes.

No ma’am, I’m not lost. I’m on the panel to which you’re here to pay audience.

It was a great honor to be invited by Chris Satullo, director of civic engagement at WHYY, former Inquirer editorial page editor and Sunday Breakfast Club program chair. The panel, which also featured Philly.com Editor Wendy Warren and Plan Philly Managing Editor (and former Inquirer Jersey editor) Matt Golas, was charged with the always cumbersome task of talking about the future of news.

We had just an hour to talk — after all, dinner was to be served and the Union League is rethinking private dining.

The only official-seeming assessment of the Sunday Breakfast Club’s history came by way of Temple University’s library:

The Sunday Breakfast Club (SBC) was founded in 1933 to give prominent members of Philadelphia’s business, political, and academic communities a forum to discuss issues pertinent to the city. Formed during the Great Depression and between World Wars I and II, the SBC’s stated goal was “to provide perspectives on social, political, and economic forces affecting the world.” The SBC consisted of two entities; the membership, initially white male executives and administrators and the steering committee, which managed the organization. An important component of the SBC was the weekly luncheons. Speakers from around the world were asked to address the membership and articulate their views in line with the SBC’s stated objectives. In its later years the club attempted to broaden the range of both its membership and speakers by recruiting minorities, women, and younger executives. As of 1998 the SBC exists and is one of Delaware Valley’s influential organizations.

The organization’s civic minded history fits perfectly with making its home at the historic Union League, itself own private group originally formed as a patriotic society to support Abraham Lincoln.

Below my paraphrased answers to some of the questions we were asked:

What’s the most promising development in media in Philly in the last couple years?

I’d say the bankruptcy of Philadelphia Media Holdings, allowing it to perhaps shed the burden of its debt. A lot of newspapers in this country, including our dailies, suffer more from legacy debt and obligations than the ability to create positive revenue.

What’s the most distressing?

I’m not sure how much the big players have changed their business plans.

We’ll talk about the situation of the papers and the commercial newscasts. Will each survive?

How far into the future are we talking? Sitting here today, I’d say I would be surprised if I couldn’t get at least the Sunday Inquirer five, ten maybe even more years from now. The Daily News? Well, there’s that mattress example from September of Serta owning Simmons. If they fill different niches then they can exist, but eventually, we’re talking about redundancies that are unnecessary.

Most people in the Philadelphia region still get their news from TV. Those audiences may be dying and practices may be changing, but we’re talking in years, not weeks.

In what form? To what degree have their woes been unavoidable, product of sweeping trends, and to what degree worsened by their own errors?

Some present company notwithstanding I’m sure, Philadelphia has not been known much for innovation or entrepreneurship in the last half century, particularly, I’d guess, when it comes to media.

So we haven’t seen a great deal of innovation in the last ten years, so some fault can always be placed there, but it doesn’t much matter.

What matters is the future and that future I think will involve a lot of convergence and partnering of various media players or they’ll cease to be. Legacy media needs to transform or become extinct.

News in the future will be trimmer, even more locally focused and involve a lot more aggregation, multimedia and participatory journalism.

Social media – flash in the pan or sea change? How should they change how journalists do their business?

The continued growth of social media will absolutely be seen as an enormous development in the future of news.  Yes, we’ll need people to curate it all, but when smart phones start having the capacity for HD video and everyone has one, the best news organizations won’t be the ones with the most reporters on the field, the best news organizations will have the best connection with their respective communities.

You get there by creating a community and dialogue, which social media can do like no other tools other.

Is journalism in trouble, or just going through a natural period of dislocation and adjustment, before a new blooming on the Web.

The railroad industry imploded in the 20th century, not transportation. Similarly, for the last quarter century and ongoing into the future, we’ll see the bursting of a newspaper and traditional trustee-style media bubble, but that doesn’t have relevance on journalism.  Guys like Clay Shirky are scared of a large reduction in journalism with no money to make sure the gap is filled, but I’m more optimistic. If people really want it, we’ll have it. It’s part of the market. The frightening part is that there’s no lying on the Web. The metrics are there to prove what works.

It’s important to stress here that journalism can be profitable online. There are plenty of examples. It’s legacy news organizations with big debt that have the most problems. We can create business plans around highly targeted, localized news and find other partnerships to cover the communities that can’t.

Journalism will be there — because there’s a market and interest for it — it just won’t look exactly like it today, and we’ll all have to give up a lot more control in the process.

Mobile devices etc – How do they change what you do?

Enormous. We’re talking a quarter of U.S. households will access the Web via a mobile device this year. That’s going to grow exorbitantly, analysts predict. Google is making enormous plays to localized Web, in creating localized search. By way of couponing on-the-go readers, we’re creating a new advertiser experience with NEast Philly. Because of the readers of Technically Philly, we take for granted their readership on devices.

Citizen journalism – hyped and not all it’s claimed, or the wave of the future?

Again, it matters the timeline. In our pitch of how you create the future of citywide coverage, participatory journalism is an absolute necessity. Our revenue projections don’t make sustainable a team of journalists. The softball stuff we want the community to cover and we’ll focus on the biggies.

This was just the second time I was ever even inside the Union League, the first being a soon abortive attempt at a rare (and too crowded) public tour. Pretty memorable second try.

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