< Talk is Cheap


Friday, December 04, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. This week, the Federal Trade Commission held a two-day workshop on the future of journalism. Two weeks ago, American Public Media held a summit called The Future of News. A couple of weeks before that, Harvard University held a conference called The Future of News, and that same week, Yale University held a symposium called Saving the News. And believe me, I could go on. What we wondered was, is all this seminaring, conferring and meeting actually accomplishing anything? When the killer asteroid is about to strike Earth, what is the point of a seminar? One person who’s been to a lot of these conferences is Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor who now teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley. He says, they're not all that helpful.

ALAN MUTTER: There’s a remarkable amount of the same old yada-yada at quite a number of these meetings.

BOB GARFIELD: And when you leave them, do you feel energized, inspired, hopeful - desperate?



ALAN MUTTER: Well, let's just say I'm at once deeply concerned and highly motivated to try to do better. You know, one of the problems [BOB LAUGHS] with a lot of these meetings is that people keep falling back on trying to find solutions to save the old institutions that formerly supported journalism. And, as everybody knows by now, the entire paradigm has shifted.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, so you've identified two elements that are missing from all of these or most of these conferences. One is young people.

ALAN MUTTER: I have, in fact, noted that the preponderance of attendees at the meetings are white men over the age of 45. Many of them, along with me, embrace the idea that we're in an era of change. But young people are creating blogs, they're starting new websites, new services. They're not waiting around for some grownup to give them permission. They just go out and do it because the technology is so ubiquitous. If you want to become a Web publisher or Web broadcaster right now, you can be doing it instead of talking about it.

BOB GARFIELD: Another thing you've identified as conspicuous by its absence is some rigorous market research. You say that no other business on earth would face the situation newspapers are facing without understanding exactly what its audience is looking for.

ALAN MUTTER: Any other business that’s going through any level of change or ferment would be doing an enormous amount of empirical, bottoms-up consumer research, to try and understand what do consumers want, how do they want it, when do they want it, where do they want it, what color should it be. None of this is happening. It’s just a number of people sitting around, holding conferences, agonizing over the problem - and, by the way, it’s a big problem, and we ought to be agonizing over it - and not doing the homework necessary to try to develop new solutions that will support journalism going forward into the future.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, I take your point about market research, but I put it to you that that is really irrelevant to the problem, that you can give the readers exactly what they're looking for, online or off, but it does you no good if the advertisers are fleeing in droves, which, of course, they are.

ALAN MUTTER: Yes, advertising has been contracting in print, and also advertising online even has shrunk lately. But when I talk about market research, I'm talking not simply about how to deliver news stories. I'm talking about creating products that consumers will pay for. People are paying oftentimes up to 20 dollars for apps on the iPhone. I should think that The New York Times app on the iPhone ought to be something that people pay for, and I think they would pay for it if that was the only way to get it. Further, I think there are a number of interactive advertising products that could have been, should have been and ought to have been invented by publishers over the years. The market for employment advertising was theirs to lose, for real estate advertising and auto advertising was theirs to lose, and they've gone off and lost it, for the most part, some –

BOB GARFIELD: Well, wait, let me interrupt you right here. I think I hear a jingle coming on.

GROUP SINGS JINGLE: Present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry.

ALAN MUTTER: [LAUGHS] And here I was –

[BOB LAUGHS] I was building up a head of steam until you stopped me.

BOB GARFIELD: I know. I'm sorry. [LAUGHS]

ALAN MUTTER: I also believe that with the overwhelming amount of information, the chore of trying to manage all these various flows of information becomes truly overwhelming if you want to be a well-informed individual. So I think that new products leveraging technology, as well as human beings, good old editors, I think those kinds of products people would pay for, and they would value them, and they would subscribe to them once and keep them on and on into the future.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, it sounds like a pretty good list of possibilities. [PAUSE] What about a conference on that?

ALAN MUTTER: Well, we did have one conference that we organized at Berkeley just a few weeks ago, and the mantra of that conference was “No kvetching.” We didn't want anybody there talking about how bad things were or how they - good they used to be. We wanted to look forward. And so, we talked about things like how to manage databases and the semantic Web and how to leverage the social behavior of the Web to propagate content in advertising. I think I can safely say that almost everybody who left, left refreshed and left optimistic that there were lots of things that could be done. But first you have to get out of the box of lamenting that which is lost and embrace the challenges and the uncertainty of the future.

BOB GARFIELD: Alan Mutter is a former editor at The Chicago Sun-Times. He now blogs at newsosaur.blogspot.com. Alan, thanks very much for joining us.

ALAN MUTTER: My pleasure.