Words of hope in an era of calamity

Once again, the print version of a newspaper is dead. This time it’s the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, disrupting the lives of journalists and the news coverage of a region, as it shifts to a pared-down digital edition after 146 years of delivering news on paper.

Journalism’s economic crisis has attained historic proportions — but there are signs of hope, too. That’s one of the main messages I carried back to Wisconsin from the We Media conference in Miami.

Having ended my 27-year newspaper reporting career this year to establish a nonprofit journalism organization, I went to We Media in search of ideas to help the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism survive and thrive.

I wasn’t disappointed. And I think many of the ideas presented at We Media could be adapted to a wide range of news organizations.

A session on “How News Companies Can Change” offered insights on the importance of knowing who the audience is, how information can be repackaged to generate more revenue, innovative experiments under way, and how newsrooms that take a risk can win big.

“Now we’re starting to go very deep into communities we’ve never really tried to reach before,” said Gannett Vice President for Digital Content Jennifer Carroll, outlining her company’s increasingly ambitious efforts to create Internet gathering places such as sites for young professionals and new mothers. “Some of what they say to each other is poignant and amazing,” Carroll said, noting that soon-to-be-mothers have taken their laptops to the hospital to announce births.

Neil Budde, president of DailyMe.com, discussed the importance of packaging content. Too many organizations, he said, focus on delivering content only on their Web sites, neglecting ways to reach additional audience — and revenue — through other means of distribution such as e-mail and a printable pdf newsletter.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, said that across the nation, news vacuums are being filled by professional journalists experimenting with new business models or by “ordinary citizens” generating their own coverage of local issues.

“We see enormous passion for this type of thing happening in communities,” especially those without a newspaper, said Schaffer, who praised the work of NewCastleNOW.org, a weekly online newspaper built from citizen-generated content in Westchester County, N.Y., after the community lost its local newspaper. (Full disclosure: Schaffer served on an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation advisory board that helped the Wisconsin investigative center obtain a grant.)

Mainstream news organizations can be reinvigorated when they seize new opportunities.

CNN is coming off of its most successful year ever, said CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman, who added that the network took risks over the past two years such as investing in the so-called “magic wall” at which correspondent John King drilled into presidential primary and election night results and, before that, by broadcasting the YouTube presidential debate. Bohrman said it all proves that even a fairly static news organization can find ways to update itself to make coverage interesting and relevant again to a large audience.

“You’ve got to go out on a limb,” Bohrman told the packed session. “There’s nothing to be gained from doing things the way they’ve always been done before.”

Those are some of the messages of hope that flowed from We Media — messages that just might help journalists in shuttered newspapers and struggling newsrooms find a way to produce and pay for great work even in this era of financial calamity.

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