Discussing the Future of Local Media

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 19, 2010

I just returned from an engaging and energetic panel discussion on the future of local media organized by Western Connect (the UWO alumni association), in which I shared the mic with David Estok, editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator, Connie Smith, the host and supervising producer of It's Always Good News on CTS Television, and Bill Kelly, talk radio host on AM 900 CHML.

The event was moderated ably by Paul Benedetti, a lecturer in Western's Faculty of Information & Media Studies, who turns out to be every bit as nice a guy in person as he comes across in his bi-weekly Spectator column. He also came across to me as a member of the professional media who really gets it when it comes to the challenges the traditional media face and the institutional obstacles to addressing those challenges in either an effective or timely manner.

I have to admit that, sitting there with these heavyweight professional journalists, I felt like a bit of an impostor. It didn't help that the overriding focus of the evening was the fate of the traditional media and I was the guy giving away for free what they're trying to sell.

Nevertheless, the mix of panelists made for a spirited discussion that got a little heated at times but was never disrespectful.

Frightened Media

I was struck - again - at how frightened the traditional media are about the disruptive consequences of the internet. I don't mean frightened in a narrow sense of self-preservation, but frightened of what will happen to the profession they love: journalism as an essential institution of liberal democracy.

To be sure, they're well aware of the challenges they face and are trying, in various ways, to embrace some idea of what the internet offers as a medium. However, I couldn't help but notice a sharp disconnect between how they see the internet and how I see the internet.

The strategies they articulated for their web presence seemed stuck in the idea of internet-as-broadcast-medium. Maybe it means a radio station can go multimedia and post videos in addition to streaming audio. Maybe it means a newspaper can use its website as a source of headlines and breaking news items, with the more in-depth coverage held over to the print edition.

What they seemed to be missing, to my mind, was the revolutionary idea that the internet is not a broadcast medium at all. Rather, it's a medium of discourse.

Journalism as Discourse

David Estok - who incidentally also seemed like a really nice guy - explained that the Spec's strategy is to have different content models for the web and print editions, with the web reserved for breaking news and headlines, and the print edition reserved for in-depth coverage, investigative reports, opinion pieces, and so on.

It struck me right away that he has the two models exactly backwards, for the simple reason that the web is where discourse happens. It's a rabbit hole with no bottom: there's all the room in the world for as deep, broad and comprehensive investigative reporting as a group of people can manage.

Further, it's the medium in which readers expect to be able to talk back - not only by posting comments on other people's articles but also by posting their own articles, either on their personal websites or as contributors to collaborative websites like RTH.

On Raise the Hammer, the discussion that goes on in the comments is a huge part of the value of this site's content. As we have implemented tools of community self-moderation, the overall quality of the comments has improved even more.

At heart, RTH is not a group of journalists talking to a group of readers; it's a group of engaged citizens talking to each other - and that makes all the difference.

Maybe that's the real future of local media: moving from a one-way communication run by professionals to a two-way communication among citizens.

Authority vs. Transparency

Another issue that came up tonight was the matter of accountability. A member of the audience suggested that blogs are unreliable because they're not produced by professional journalists. Bill Kelly jumped on this and argued that blogs just post a lot of personal opinions whereas the traditional media have professional checks and balances in place to ensure accuracy.

Again, I found myself looking at the issue exactly upside-down. I argued that RTH is the most accountable news source in the city, because our mechanisms of direct accountability are baked right into the site design.

If I write something in which I play fast and loose with the facts, or commit a fallacy of reasoning, or state something factually incorrect, RTH readers will call me on it in comments that permanently live right on the same page as the article.

The feedback we receive is immediate and public, which means everyone else can see it as well. That's where our accountability comes from.

We're under enormous pressure to fact-check vigorously, chase references back to their sources, assess the logic and reasoning behind opinion pieces, and generally ensure that articles published to this site are accurate, fair and honest so that we avoid being called out for failing to do these things.

When we do make mistakes - and we do make mistakes - we can't just silently fix the error, because Google crawls this site constantly and caches its pages. Instead, we note changes in three ways:

  1. A notice at the top of the article saying it has been updated.

  2. An update at the bottom of the article detailing the change and citing the person who pointed out the error.

  3. An anchor link from the update straight to the changed paragraph.

Please note that this direct accountability doesn't mean we can simply outsource quality control to our readers. We don't always get it right the first time, but if we get in the habit of publishing sloppy, poorly-sourced stuff, we will quickly lose credibility among our readers, who have lots of other places they can go to learn and share information.

Disconnect Between Errors and Corrections

In contrast, accountability on talk radio is a fallen leaf borne down a stream. Someone is always talking, but there is no permanent record or canonical home for what they say.

Newspapers are better, but corrections in print appear days later and aren't closely bound to the original error. Unfortunately, the Spec website (it's powered by a proprietary content management system mandated by Metroland West, the corporation that owns the Spec) is similarly crippled in its ability to link related content across time.

I still remember a report last summer by Howard Elliott, the Spec's Web Editor, in which he detailed the plight of a man who was wrongly implicated in a troublesome activity that was reported in the paper.

The man was later found to be innocent, but anyone who searched for his name found the original news article as the first search result. It was affecting his reputation among acquaintances and business associates.

At the time, I contacted Elliott and suggested adding an editorial update to the original, higher-ranked article stating that the man in question was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and including a link to the follow-up article.

He replied that they were looking into that option; but the real problem is that the Spec treats its web articles as atomic, standalone documents with no context to related content.

There's an enormous amount of rich value in the Spec's archives, but they're locked away behind a benighted corporate policy that insists on using a crappy tool that doesn't work the way the web works.

There are some encouraging signs. Just yesterday, for example, a Spec article on the proposed Creative Catalyst actually included a link back to the original City report (PDF link).

But this stuff is really a no-brainer. The fact that the Spec is so late to implement such an elementary web idiom as a hyperlink shows just how far they have to go to really understand and accept the nature of this disruptive technology.

The Real Media Problem

At several points, other panelists talked about how the traditional media have a "revenue problem": lots of viewers/readers/listeners, but shrinking revenue streams, mainly from advertising and classifieds. As a result, the traditional business model in which advertisers pay the media for access to eyeballs is failing.

In my introduction, I made a confession: RTH doesn't have a failing business model, because we don't have a business model. We don't have a revenue problem, because we don't collect revenue.

The reason we can do this is because our operating costs are miniscule (some $10-15 a month for web hosting and bandwidth) and our content is created entirely by passionate volunteers.

So once again my take on the issue was upside-down compared to the other panelists. I argued that the media don't have a revenue problem, they have a cost problem. The cost to deliver content to an audience has collapsed, but the traditional media still operate in the high-cost, high-value-add environment that obtained when publishing was scarce and expensive.

Of course, the answer won't be found in panicky cost-cutting, either. Every time a newspaper cuts the newsroom or outsources copy-editing without transforming its overall workflow, those employees who remain end up more dispirited - and great journalism demands spirit.

The Web as a Stream of Text

I don't mean to beat up on the Spec over radio and TV; truth be told, I don't listen to the radio and I haven't had cable TV in about a decade. (Yes, I'm that guy.)

I focus on the newspaper because I think it has the best chance of surviving a transition onto the web and embracing the inexpensive power of that network.

I still have a newspaper subscription, and I have a lot emotionally invested in text-based media (printed on paper or pixels or otherwise) - mainly because it's where my own passion lies.

Text is searchable, findable, linkable, citable, and aggregatable in a way that streaming audio and video are not. It's both persistent and portable. As such, it provides the best opportunity for the kind of juxtaposing and recombinating that drives innovation.

Text also has an incredible content-to-bandwidth ratio, so it provides the best value for a media outfit trying to cut costs.

The Great Decoupling?

It seems to me that there may be a real opportunity to cut away whole swaths of unproductive busywork in at least some media forms if they give up on the bizarre, indirect system of revenue generation that has obtained since newspapers started carrying advertising.

The connection between how networks get their money and what their audience wants to see is squiggly at best, and the result is a pretty gross mismatch.

TV is a canonical case. I may buy the odd TV series on DVD, but I'm damned if I'm going to pay for a whole bundled stream of channels when I only want to watch one show.

Viewers should be able to subscribe to the shows they want to watch and pay directly for that access. Think of what this would do for quality, if the people watching the show were the customers buying the product and not the product being sold! Shows would win or lose based on whether they had enough subscribers to pay for the cost of production.

Or maybe I've just let myself get caught up in an updated version of the "micropayments" nonsense the newspapers were crowing about in the 1990s.

It could be, instead, that all content creation gradually moves away from expensive, one-way, monolithic production and toward cheap, two-way, diverse productions by determined amateurs.

After all, if the internet has taught us anything it's that people like to create things and share them.

You can see how that would make media professionals defensive.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Winnow (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 10:32:37

Great talk last night, they really had you on the hot seat but you handled it with grace, especilly when Bill Kelly was hammering you on those scary scary anonymous blogs.

My head just about fell off when the Spec guy said their putting LESS content on the website and making it into headline news. Duh, the website is the growing part of their circulation AND it's tons cheaper than print. What on earth were they thinking when they came up with that?!

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2010 at 10:34:51

I was at the same event as Ryan and appear to hold similar impressions about the event. Paul Benedetti did a masterful job of moderating the event. Ryan presented his position very articulately and persuasively.

There was really a sense that the new media 'wisdom of the crowds' types were a bit marginalized at this event; that they were spreading some new-fangled untested idea - 'Wikipedia: any person can edit the thing!'

The idea that the traditional media is more accountable than new media upstarts like RtH does not appear to hold water. On the other hand professional journalists do often have skills which are valuable and should not be devalued. Citizen journalists and professional journalists should not be in opposition. Both tend to have a passion for journalism and for the public discourse it encourages.

It's unfortunate that the revenue model of traditional media is collapsing but then I can't get too worked up about revenue models in general. New revenue streams often arise to replace ones that are decimated. What professional journalism should be addressing now is how to create new revenue streams given that the world has changed completely for them. Don't rail against this change, work with it.

I was also struck that the event there was no mention of Twitter and that the whole notion of blogging was given little coverage. I believe it is the golden age for such things and enables new voices to enter public discourse. These developments should make journalists happy but instead they seem to make those at the event fearful and uncertain.

I am also struck by how fast Ryan wrote his well-argued article. The event just happened last night. This is a prime example of highly productive citizen journalism in action. I have seen the future and I believe it resembles something like RtH.

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 10:36:09

I am sorry I missed this, I had planned to go but was unable to make it. I find these types of discussions fascinating. I always go back to McLuhan's Hot vs. Cool mediums, which he said were on a spectrum. Hot media is like tv, where the news is broadcast, it's one way, and there's very little interaction between the consumer and the broadcaster. Cool media has more interaction, and requires more analysis and input from the receiver. So print media would be cooler than tv journalism, but blogs are even cooler than that. I had a TA in Communications state in a class that blogs were basically useless as a means of communicating important information. I was aghast. I pointed out several instances of bloggers completely shaming mainstream media in breaking BIG news.

In terms of revenue, I think people are very much burned out on corporate mass advertising. A lot of people have been laid off by these corporations, and have watched their jobs go overseas. I find it interesting that since corporations have made their workers dispensable, the workers have responded by selling to each other via Craigslist, Ebay, and Kijiji. That said, I don't have any answers for print media or advertisers on how to achieve greater access to smartypants blog readers, nor am I inclined to come up with any.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 10:53:15

this thing was called 'The future of local media' and they didn't discuss blogging??

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2010 at 10:56:20

Another thing that came up last night was the idea that there are 'facts' that sit around and that can be put into a story value-free, without much effort or examination.

The best kind of journalism for me is that which examines these 'facts' and tries to re-frame them and give them new interpretations. It appears all too easy to just dish out the same old corporate-sponsored line, which may never have been critically assessed for 'factuality.'

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By Lurkalicious (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 11:15:25

I was there last night too. Great event - local media talks always draw out passionate people!

I know it's become a cliche but when Bill Kelly was doing his bravado thing about how all this change has been going on since Gutenberg, all I could think was that he and the other old media professionals are like the scribes who were put out of a job after Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Look at the parallels. David Estok said last night more people read the Spec than ever, but they can't figure out how to make money from them. After the printing press, more people were *reading* than ever but suddenly the guys who get paid to write out books can't get paid for what they do.

Ryan sort of gets at this in his essay above but what's really happening is that journalism - publishing - is being amateurized by the web. You needed professionals when there was one or two printing presses per city (or one or two TV stations), because the bandwidth was so narrow you needed people to do QA before publication.

Now that anyone can publish anything and everyone can see it, we don't need professional gatekeepers of quality any more.

Here's the crucial bit: The gatekeepers weren't there to ensure that readers only saw good stuff, they were there to ensure money wasn't wasted publishing crap no one would want to read. Mistakes were too expensive! That's why the professionals earned the big bucks.

Nowadays, if someone publishes crap no one wants to read, it doesn't matter because it didn't cost anything to publish it.

See, readers aren't stupid. We know quality when we see it. Sorry Bill, but we don't need gatekeepers like you to protect us from lousy journalism. We can figure that out for ourselves very quickly.

The good stuff will rise to the top and the bad stuff will drop to the bottom.

Now are you starting to understand why the MSM are worried? Their professional skills are about as useful to the internet generation as the professional skills of scribes were to the printing press generation.

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By Really? (registered) | Posted January 20, 2010 at 16:14:39

Congrats on the invite, Ryan! I couldn't think of anyone I'd like to see more at a 'Future of [Hamilton] Media' Roundtable Discussion than you!

It's too bad they were kind of ganging up on you, but this is Hamilton afterall, and CHANGE IS SCARY!! ;)

Again, Congrats, and I look forward to hearing your name in and around the City a whole lot more in 2010! You're truly a great ambassador to your (our?) cause, and Hamilton in general!

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2010 at 08:03:25

Here is an interesting take on the struggles of print media, from the Atlantic (via Arts and Letters Daily). Columnist Michael Kinsley argues that print newspaper reports are too long:

Once upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it.

He goes on to argue that the unnecessary lengthening of news reports gives reporters too much license to express their own opinions (he's not talking about op-eds or columnists here).

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2010 at 10:22:43

"This isn't an example of some failing in the newspaper model; it's merely bad writing. (Frankly, a lot of NY Times writing is unbearably puffy and self-important.)"

I agree re puffiness and self-importance. When I first started reading the Times, I couldn't wrap my head around the fustian hauteur and pomposity of some of the columnists' styles. That being said, I think this is something people have come to love about the paper - there is a quasi-literary quality to a Times piece which makes it an actual pleasure to read. As a straight news source, it may leave something to be desired. But damn! It's the last real paper of record in the English speaking world and its official style reflects this fact.

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By SarahBanks (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2010 at 10:55:42

First off, I want to say that Ryan did a great job on Tuesday night. He represented the "new wave" with great intelligence, eloquence and insight. It really is a shame there weren't more of his ilk in the crowd. (Doesn't say much for the social capital that is cultivated via blogs, message boards etc---log off once in a while, people! Come out and support your fresh-faced peeps!)

I'm skeptical about paid content and especially don't like The Spec's idea of providing a small taste on the Web that requires readers to read the print version if they want the deeper story.

I'm curious to see how the NY Times idea of "metering" their readers and charging only those who visit their site on a very regular basis works out. That's supposed to happen a year from now according to this article just published yesterday:

That makes a bit more sense to me.

But say the Toronto Star starts charging me for access to their paper online. Truth be told, I'd be much more inclined to purchase a print version. This is largely because of the "skimming" nature that I go about reading papers online. I just don't feel the experience is worth a fee. Whereas, the experience of reading a full article and turning a page while sipping a latte is a much more gratifying experience and worth the $1.00.

I'm also concerned about the domino effect of paid content. If it all of sudden takes off, then does this mean I'll have to pay for every paper and mag out there online that I want to read. That's an unwieldy amount of subscriptions to keep track of. And I may only want one article a year from the San Francisco Chronicle but I don't want to pay for it.

Finally, I think it's vital that there be no fees associated with posting online comments/feedback on articles. i.e. If you subscribe to the print version and want to comment online, you shouldn't be required to have an online subscription to do so.

It's an interesting unknown frontier upon us. And I think the Ryans of the world should take the helm.

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By sad old media (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2010 at 11:22:29

It's nothing new to get newspaper content for free. Even your subscription (or newsstand price) only covers printing and distribution not content creation. Same with TV, cable charge pays for the actual cable not the content piped through it.

No way in hell people will start paying for content just because it suddenly got way cheaper to print and distribute it!

Anyway if the newspapers all hide behind paywalls that just means the blogs will win. They know how to make money giving away content on the internet.

Hey Murdoch, you don't want Google indexing the WSJ and MySpace and "stealing" your content? Edit your robots.txt file and then shut up about it.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 21, 2010 at 11:55:51

I too was at the talk. Too bad we weren't all wearing our light rail t-shirts! In addition to the mind-blowing speed with which Ryan posted this article, I was struck by a few things.

First, Connie Smith pleading that the MSM have authority and credibility because everything they produce is 'vetted' by presumably infallible editors. It was kinda sad, actually. How anyone could seriously make this argument in the wake of the massive failure of the (mostly) US media in the run up to the Iraq war is beyond me. Our local media may not have been responsible, but the abject failure to question, and the happy printing of outright lies, particularly in 'the paper of record', has changed forever the way many people view the credibility of all mainstream media.

Secondly, David Estok talking about all the care and thought on the part of educated professionals, that goes into the choice and placement of stories. I have a sister and friends who are journalists. I have a great deal of respect for their craft and a deep concern for its future. I have no doubt that a great deal of thought and sincerity go into these decisions, but as he spoke, it struck me just how paternalistic and presumptuous this pre-packaging seems in this day and age. Even as a baby boomer, I have little patience for this, and have no doubt that subsequent generations will find the notion that our 'betters' can and should decide what information we will have access to, entirely laughable.

And while we're on the subject of baby boomers, I believe it was also Estok who made the point that boomers are still reading newspapers, so the current model still has a 20-30 year lifespan. Think again, David. I may be a boomer, and I may have subscriptions to two newspapers, but my brain has been permanently re-wired by my contact with the internet, and I have come to expect the accessibility, instant accountability, and forum for evidence-based discussion that the internet provides. It is far too easy for more static media to be used as conduits for received wisdom, thus exempting them from the crucial discussions our society must have if we are to create a sustainable future for ourselves. I think it would be dangerous for journalists and traditional media to be exempted from this discourse, but they'll need to do some radical re-thinking about their out-moded 'gatekeeper' role, as well as their business model, if they are to maintain their rightful role as the fourth estate.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 21, 2010 at 17:52:58

This isn't an example of some failing in the newspaper model; it's merely bad writing. (Frankly, a lot of NY Times writing is unbearably puffy and self-important.)

What I found interesting about this is that it is one of the arguments I have heard against the blogosphere-- bad writing. As if you never see that in a newspaper.

I am also with Highwater on what I've come to expect from news outlets because of my experience with the internet, including timely updates. If the major papers lock everyone but subscribers out of online content, they'd better have darn good websites to interest me in paying for access. Otherwise, I may end up just getting my news from public broadcasters (CBC, NPR, BBC) on the radio and online, and supplementing their commentary with blogs.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-01-21 16:58:08

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2010 at 16:23:30

I enjoy reading the NYTimes (that esteemed purveyor of both Judith Miller and Jayson Blair) both online and on paper. I doubt very much that its idea of charging for its online content will work out for them.

I usually enjoy reading stuff in the Times but I tend to pass over stuff about which this paper has been weak: areas where you might have to take a critical view of American foreign policy in order to get a true picture of what is going on, such as in the Middle East, Central America, Haiti, etc. It tends to have a blind spot a mile wide on those types of issues. But on things such as what cool bars there are in Berlin, it is fine (if you have as much money as the typical New Yorker).

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2010 at 23:48:14

Not sure if this thread has gone completely quiet yet, but I saw this today on Jim Emerson's blog on Roger Ebert's web page, and it's too good not to share: It's called BREAKING: Generic News Story.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-01-30 22:48:45

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 14:35:57

...and Estok is out.

No word yet on a replacement.

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By erich nolan bertussi davies (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2010 at 04:05:09

traditional media frightened? sure.

clueless more like it.

broken architecture actual reality.

you can't sustain in 2010 with 1980's or 1990's or early 2000's architecture, failure to factor this will lead to mistakes like in a hapless attempt to grok new media publicly but truly just apply the same old poor and ineffective architectural solutions to a totally new modelled world.

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