TLF at the Chicago’s Journalism Town Hall Meeting

K’s note: TLF is neither a journalism blog or a Chicago placeblog, but the issues of the online content and media economics are relevant here, so I crossposted this from my other blog.

Forget the Oscars, for media folks in Chicago last Sunday’s big event was Ken Davis’ (former public radio dude) Chicago Journalism Town Hall meeting.

There was an air of exclusivity around this event at the start, even though the word is it was due to space issues (the room at the Hotel Allegro was pretty small) rather than wanting to keep certain people out of the dialogue. Apparently if you didn’t get a personal invite, you had to e-mail the organizers and give then a short “justify your existence” professional bio. How egalitarian. I don’t think anyone was turned away, but I also don’t think “town hall” and “invitation-only” are words that should be used together.

When I first heard of the event, I must admit I was expecting a hot mess of epic proportions. With both the Tribune and the Sun Times spiraling towards bankruptcy and the media industry in Chicago becoming a daily bloodbath of lost jobs, people are understandably on edge. The fundamentals of print(and broadcast) media economics have changed, so I don’t think it’s “doom mongering” to talk about the future of news media in Chicago as a no-newspaper town. It may happen, possibly by the end of this year.

So the event itself, at least the first couple of hours, was a much needed and long overdue dialogue that include many top players in Chicago news media, and I think a big dose of reality for some folks, especially from veteran John Callaway, who broke it down: “Let’s assume that the newspaper industry as we know it is dead, and let’s figure out what to do from there.” he said at one point early in the discussion, which I know was probably heretical speech for some in the audience, but it needed to be said, and by someone like him, a print junkie who “wants to die of ink poisoning.” I think it freaked people out, and it was kinda of awesome, because the print agnostics probably wouldn’t take anyone else seriously.

There were some interesting ideas about alternatives: an investigative journalism co-op model, where groups of journalists would pool their resources, while not being bound to one particular publication. There was talk about micropayment models, a non-profit funding model, that presumably would be spearheaded by the foundation world, until some foundation dude rolled up (I didn’t catch where he was from, unfortunately) and basically said, “we may willing to fund something like this in the short term, but don’t look to us forever.” which honestly, I appreciated. I don’t think many media folks realize how foundations work. Foundations are not leprechauns. They do not have a giant pot of money to throw around ad infinitum.

There was discussion of bringing back the old news bureau model and a discussion of just how much it would cost to run a start up news room. Geoff Dougherty of Chi-Town Daily News said somewhere in the ballpark of $2-4 million, but then mentioned that he didn’t have a City Hall desk and then people seemed to brush him off.(Actually I think they brushed him off when he mentioned journalists making an average of $30k a year, which honestly, I don’t seem to know many journalists who make more than $35k, so I don’t know where the scoffing is coming from.)

The second half of the event seemed to turn into a WWE Smackdown style set up with bloggers and journalists smack talking (“Screw the Tribune! I don’t have any sympathy for anyone on this panel” said the dude from the Windy Citizen), laid-off and freelance writers spewing bilious rants (including two people I recognized from AWJ, hee.)Carol Marin tried to bring back some civility to the exchange, saying that we all have something to learn from each other, but to be honest with you, the same old “the Internet is killing journalism/print media deserves to die” debate still seems to rule the day with a lot of folks, and both of those perspectives are short-sided.

I’m actually pretty ambivalent about it all. I have been forecasting the slow death of print for several years now, after watching so many indie mags go under, and there’s some bitterness, I admit on may part, as I believe there was a lot of hubris and self-importance on the part of some old-school traditional print journalists who thought their jobs were untouchable and that media economy issues had nothing to do with them. At the same time, the new media profit model is not much of a model at all. I don’t really care that Obama called on the Huffington Post during his first press conference; Huffington Post doesn’t pay their writers, and people need to eat.

There’s no one solution for this problem, and certainly one meeting of 300 or so media professionals won’t do anything. This is a complicated, weighty issue, and also the major players in this game, the Sam Zells of the world who have print media by the balls (pardon my indelicacy) were not at this event so one wonders how much could even be accomplished in this situation.

But it’s the start of a dialogue — the old newsroom stalwarts and the Twitterati were actually in one room, in real life, hashing things out, and it was a refreshing (and entertaining) thing to see. Could go for more women included as experts next time, but what else is new!

The discussion continues on Michael Miner’s Hot Type blog at the Chicago Reader website, and you can listen to the Town Hall meeting at the Chicago Public Radio website.

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[…] see a sense of optimism and opportunity from my fellow media professionals, rather than the usual doom-mongering. Things are scary, and at this point I don’t think there’s anyone in the media industry […]

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