Time to take hard look at future of news biz

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Posted by madcityradio.com on January 06, 2009 at 07:39:53:

Bill Berry: Time to take hard look at future of news biz
/The Capital Times/

STEVENS POINT -- Tom Schultz, the longtime editor of the locally owned Watertown Daily Times, was announced recently as the new president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

Schultz has been a leader in Wisconsin media circles and a strong advocate of freedom of information for decades. He's an old pro who takes over the state association of weekly and daily newspapers at a time when many of them are experiencing the worst of times.

As a former colleague of Schultz's who happens to believe that journalism plays a crucial role in American democracy, I offer a suggestion for the WNA under his leadership:

Convene a statewide discussion about the future of Wisconsin journalism. WNA can be among the major sponsors of this discussion, but it shouldn't be the only one. It won't do much good to invite only publishers, editors and other media executives who too often see the world through a computer screen or a balance sheet. In addition to working journalists, we need to invite community and business leaders from many sectors, politicians, academicians and interested citizens of all ages and stripes to participate. The topic is important to all of us.

Goals can include identifying strategies and models for the future. Who knows what might emerge? We know a lot about what isn't working. We need to know more about what is working and what is possible as we move forward. Schultz's stalwart commitment to the news business makes him the right guy to push this idea forward.

Another longtime Wisconsin communications media observer, Madison's Bill Kraus, has been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness about this topic. Kraus notes in blogs and columns that as newspapers across the country eliminate reporters, we are losing thousands of foot soldiers whose jobs were to keep an eye on the people running our governments and businesses. Somewhere along the line, society has devalued the work of these reporters.

This is no small matter. As Kraus has pointed out, there's no substitute for good, old-fashioned shoe leather when it comes to journalism. It's easier to sit in front of a computer and blog. But journalism is hard work, and those who practice it are often the least popular people in the room. They've also traditionally been underpaid, which over time made the trade a lot less appealing to smart young people.

Certainly, the Internet has made it easier to disseminate information. Some of the traditional roles of newspapers and other media to inform people about simple matters like holiday changes in garbage collection have become less necessary. You can usually find that information on Web sites. But news is much deeper than that.

Maybe people are too busy to take the time to pay attention to what's going on around them, even if it is at their own risk. Maybe the corporate takeovers of media have driven deep wedges between citizens and "their" newspapers. Maybe people really believe they can get all they need to know from the Internet and radio and TV talk shows. Perhaps the de-emphasis of journalism programs in high schools and universities across the country has led to a general devaluing of the trade's important place in society. Whatever the reasons, we are losing or witnessing the downsizing of important sources of information, arguably at a time when we need them more than ever.

Certainly we have journalism models that still work well. Many community newspapers are thriving. Online news services provide solid reporting of state political news for those who pay attention. Wisconsin Public Radio, which relies more and more on listener support, offers insightful coverage of statewide news that would otherwise go unnoticed. Hardworking journalists at radio and TV stations across the state provide good basic coverage.

But as Kraus has noted, many of these sources have traditionally relied on the work of newspaper journalists to steer them toward the news. If the trend lines continue in the direction they've been heading, that crucial link will be lost or greatly diminished. Maybe that just doesn't matter in today's world. But do we want to risk finding out that assumption is wrong?

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