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Arianna Huffington and others on the future of media

April 30, 2009 |  1:45 pm

Ariannahuffington"Sorry we started late," James Rainey announced. "There were a lot of people who wanted to get in here once they saw Arianna’s helicopter circling."

Rainey, an L.A. Times media columnist, moderated Sunday’s panel, “Media: Where Do We Go From Here?” which featured writer Marc Cooper, editors Sharon Waxman (The Wrap) and Andrew Donohue (Voice Of San Diego) and the doyenne of new media herself, Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington Post.

Earlier this month, Huffington announced the new nonprofit Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which will support pieces that "range from long-form investigations to short breaking news stories and will be presented in a variety of media, including text, audio and video. And, in the open source spirit of the Web, all of the content the Fund produces will be free for anyone to publish."

Apparently, she doesn't see this as being in direct competition with more traditional news outlets; she said that newspapers and websites could coexist peacefully by "integrating the inevitability of technology."

But old media outlets -- including organizations like the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times and the Washington Post -- were painted early on as craggy strongholds of institutionalism that deign only to let certain voices be heard. New media organizations, we were told, provide new and very necessary public forums where the gatekeepers of the press could be surpassed by citizen journalists with handy tape recorders and low-overhead websites like the Wrap and the Annenberg School's digital news website.

Sharon Waxman, who had a post up on the Wrap about the panel just a few hours after it concluded, was previously employed by not one but two "towers of arrogance." At the panel, she said, "only when you work at the New York Times do you understand how the New York Times is part and parcel of the establishment, rather than an engine for pure accountability or for transparency among other pillars of the establishment. It is the establishment."

Marc Cooper, who reviewed the "demise"of his old LA Weekly stamping grounds in January, compared the present cultural atmosphere to that of 1490, not long after the Gutenberg printing press had been invented. Cooper noted that the printing press, built nominally to distribute copies of the Bible, led directly to such non-Christian events as the creation of secular humanism and the French Revolution. Progress begets progress, it seems. “I will take mass amateurization, or the mass democratization of publishing any day,” he said.

It was Andrew Donohue, editor of the 4-year-old local news website Voice Of San Diego, who offered the most salient point of the afternoon. It's after the jump.

“All the great stories that were done by reporters at the L.A. Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post … those were done by individuals,” Donahue said, stressing that news organizations are, after all, staffed by people with mouths to feed and bills to pay, not by "some massive, monolithic robot" that magically stalks through the hills of Afghanistan, or stays up late thumbing through tax filings.

He brought the debate over methodology and ethics and accessibility and economics back, if only briefly, to the human level.

Voice of San Diego has made it its bread and butterto go after stories that affect both the politics and the community of San Diego. It's done so in a surgically specific manner that is breathtaking in its wonkishness. 

James Rainey, a media columnist for the L.A. Times, wrote, "Because it doesn't have to print newspapers, Voice of San Diego puts the majority of its $825,000 annual budget into salaries for its 11 journalists, who make from $35,000 to roughly $70,000 and focus on government, education, law enforcement, real estate and science. It's up to the Union-Tribune to give the comprehensive view of California's second-largest city -- with coverage of the arts, sports and other topics Voice barely touches."

"It wasn’t about replacing the newspaper and it also wasn’t about saving some sort of failed business model," Donohue explained. "It was about the competition. The competition is still amazingly important. It’s still about who can get the biggest and the best stories."

Much of the success of its model can be traced to Buzz Woolley. A retired venture capitalist and philanthropist, Woolley was upset with the lack of local and city coverage in San Diego after the city’s two newspapers, the Evening Tribune and the San Diego Union, merged. Woolley provided the startup money for an online-only venture and partnered with Neil Morgan, a former Union-Tribune writer. Counting Woolley and Morgan, it has five directors on its board. 

But the question remains: If not a philanthropist like Buzz Woolley, who or what will swoop down to save the people of the news business?

The consensus of Sunday’s panel was that any kind of paid or subscription-only system of content walls will never work, given the notion that the public at large refuses to pay for anything it once got free. However, as Huffington pointed out, people are more than "willing to pay for porn" on the Internet. "Decreasingly!" Waxman interjected, adding that the Wrap covers the adult beat as well.

All four panelists shared the distinction of writing and publishing for online formats that don’t require printed matter and, like it or not, aren’t going to go away. This was more than fine with a packed-house audience that sat through more than an hour of debate that was, in equal parts, newspaper whipping party and self-congratulatory Internet tent revival.

-- George Ducker

Photo of Arianna Huffington at the 2009 Festival of Books. Credit: John M. Heller/Getty Images

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