Journalism’s Future? It Will Be Fine and So Will We

I thoroughly enjoyed the energy and conversation during a packed-house community discussion about the future of journalism, a forum sponsored by NPR station WBHM-90.3. I was honored to be one of the four panelists asked to speak last night about the future of journalism, given the recent upheavals in this digital age. Thanks for all the tweets and retweets of my comments and those of my fellow panelists Andre Natta, Kyle Whitmire and Bob Sims.

But, in case I didn’t say it clearly enough last night, I want to do so today: journalism – the storytelling and recording of events in our community and our world – will, happily, survive the current chaos.

WBHM General Manager Scott Hanley (far left) with the panelists.From left: Vickii Howell, Andre Natta, Kyle Whitmire, and Bob Sims.

Journalism as we now know it is simply shedding an old skin that worked in the past (in this case, newspapers), and is taking on a new form that’s adapting to the new electronic reality.

There were a lot of good comments and discussion that came out during WBHM’s “Issues & Ales: What is the future of media and journalism in North Central Alabama?” I encourage you to read the Twitter feed (another source of information) and see WBHM’s synopsis that captures some of what was said last night.

But I did want to say this. In every transition, there is going to be some pain. And several audience members brought that up. The digital divide – the chasm facing seniors and low-income people who can’t afford broadband internet or pricey iPads or even lower-priced netbooks that hinders them from getting critical information they need – is a particular problem.

So how are they going to get news about what’s going on in their community, their world? How can they make informed decisions when the information is locked in a digital form they can’t access?

Also, hundreds of media professionals like my friends at The Birmingham News who were downsized out of the jobs they loved last week are victims of this digital revolution. Even before them, scores of television cameramen, producers and reporters had been laid off. I remember sitting on the set of an interview at a local TV station and seeing no crew operating the cameras. The on-air anchor and the weatherman were the only media folks in the room.

Like I said last night, the first things to go in a bad economy are the marketing and advertising budgets. That money fuels the media engine. And things get even worse in a prolonged recession like we’re experiencing now. So cuts in all newsrooms, print and otherwise, were inevitable.

What’s even more troubling, no media company has completely figured out how to monetize the digital marketplace to pay the salaries of journalists.

So these among the reasons for all the fear and a little loathing that came out during last night’s event at the Cantina.

One lady didn’t like the new Birmingham News paper that came out Wednesday. Even Bob Sims, the Director of Community News for AL.abama Media Group that now puts out the state’s newspapers, said he wasn’t pleased with the paper either. But he asked for patience as the new organization works through its issues.

We’re all going to need patience as we work through the new realities of journalism in the future.

Just as the federal government built the interstate system, maybe we need it to build a national broadband network so that all people, regardless of age or income, have access to electronic media in all its forms. Maybe the pay structure that underwrites future media works like cable TV subscribership. Some of those dollars support C-Span, according to what WBHM General Manager Scott Hanley said last night.

Whatever we do, good storytelling and information will be with us for a very long time for two very important reasons. One, because people are social by nature and want to know what’s going on, they’ll use (and eventually, pay for) whatever tools help them fulfill that need in a meaningful way. Two, democracy can’t thrive without factual information. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to create their own facts; 2+2 will always equal 4, no matter what anyone says or does.

The short-term future of journalism is cloudy and uncertain because we just don’t know how to make the leap from one form of communication to another. No one has yet figured out the business model(s) that can profitably deliver accurate, factual news and information to people who need and want it. But some enterprising souls will.

When they do (and we pray it’s soon), the long-term future of journalism will work out for us all.

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