On Wednesday (August 8), Loyola University in conjunction with investigative news site The Lens, welcomed five dynamic panelists to help a roomful of local journalists and concerned citizens understand the recent, drastic downsizing of the Times-Picayune. They also assembled to ask the community to think about what kind of news it wants, and how it would like its news delivered. “Most of our information on what people want comes from Silicon Valley, not regular people,” admitted Christopher Sopher, Journalism Program Associate at the Knight Foundation, noting the need to differentiate the civic community from the business community. “Organizations who think of their audience as a community versus continuing to think of them as consumers are tending to have more success.”
The event was moderated by former Picayune editor Steve Beatty, who helped start The Lens — New Orleans’ first non-profit, online news source — partly to give the city better coverage of the charter school explosion ushered in by Katrina [Full disclosure: I am one of The Lens’ couple dozen charter school reporters; it’s been an extremely successful project.]. The Lens is the type of news source the panel meant when they agreed that news should be considered “educational charity,” and that basing news on profit is doing the community a disservice.
Panel member Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute’s Senior Faculty of Ethics, Reporting and Writing, said that New Orleans is not the only city facing a potential “news desert,” yet she also acknowledged that New Orleans is going through its changes in very dramatic way. “You’ve gone from a media environment that was five years behind the times to now being three-to-five years ahead of times — all in two months.” McBride encouraged journalists wishing to survive to develop an expertise. She also said that she hoped to see new, news sources engaging local schools to help teach young students traditional journalism.
The panel seemed to share a sense of optimism, though, as well as a belief that, if the community is underserved, then new journalistic entities should be able to capitalize on The Picayune’s corporate cowardice. Keith Woods, Times-Picayune veteran and NPR’s current Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations, believes, “We now have the opportunity to meet people where they are,” noting that the medium utilized is not as important as putting forth fact-based, well-sourced reporting.
Kevin Davis, CEO and Executive Director of the INN network, adamantly reiterated: “The conversation should be about ‘what now?’ and not ‘how did we get here?’”
Jamal Watkins, Chief of Staff at the Center for Social Inclusion, added that he didn’t believe one paper could even serve the entire community. “If we’re talking about the New Orleans community, well, which community are we talking about?” asked Watkins to audience applause. Watkins repeatedly stressed the need to also expand access to news, especially to underprivileged communities.
All of the optimism and good ideas were interspersed with laments for public interest in long-form, hard journalism. Judging from the large crowd, there certainly seemed to be enough people wanting to report the news. Still, I looked around the auditorim wondering if only journalists were interested in journalism anymore — in the same way that some bands are only beloved by their fellow musicians. Were we not like fans at a Rush convention, sitting and wondering together why Rush isn’t more popular?
Then again, no one’s freedom and liberty depends on Rush.