Friday, September 17, 2004

NNA conference report 4

This morning's plenary session led off with Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He introduced us to his school's new Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Funded by a $31 million grant, the institute will aim, in Mills' words, "to bring together citizens and journalists and researchers aimed at tightening that link between citizens and journalists, a link that has been severely damaged over past couple of decades." Mills said he thinks the community newspapers represented in the audience "could give larger newspapers a lot of lessons in how to stay tightly connected to your community." Through the a fellowship program, "journalists and scholars from all over the world [will] tackle the problems connected with journalism, figuring out ways to help journalists serve citizens better," and to help citizens better interact with journalists.

Echoing Dean Singleton, he emphasized the importance of emerging technologies: "We will become a national testing center for new technolologies in gathering and delivering journalism." Plans include a "high-tech research and demonstration center" that will serve to "figure out ways to use those technologies in ways that make journalism more relevant and useful and acceptable to citizens."

Then, to breakout groups.

1. "Newpapers on the Web . . . It's the Franchise," moderated by Steve Haynes, Oberlin [Kan.] Herald.

Haynes is CEO of four northwest Kansas papers. He pointed out from the start that he is the corporate presence, not a hands-on newspaperman. What was fascinating is that his daughter was in the room, too. She is a 30-year-old woman who works in advertising and web design for Morris Communications, in Augusta, Ga., which has been described as a "small market-media empire." The generational divide here was fascinating and I think telling.

Father starts the session by saying: "I want us to talk about intergration of the internet and us and other media. We are looked at in our communities as prime source of information. That's our franchise. There are people out there who would like to move in on our franchise. We have to learn how to defend and protect and grow our franchise." (Didn't sound very blog-friendly; I tried mostly to listen in this session.)

But the conversation quickly shifted to the question of how to make money on the web. The issue is charging for page views or not. The underlying issue is whether there is value to an online presence apart from the direct financial return.

Mr. Haynes favors the teasing approach: put just enough on the web so that people will have to buy a subscription. This has a lot of support in the room. Some small papers do like the Wall Street Journal and give online access only to hard-copy subscribers. The object is not to undercut the paid subscription base.

An interesting topic is obits: whether to offer them in full online or not. One approach is not to, because people really buy the papers for obits. Another approach is to make them available for a fee. Yet another is to offer them in conjunction with ads from florist shops! This approach is much endorsed by Mr. Haynes' daughter.

The daughter is generally more in favor of putting content online for free and relying heavily on advertisers. That is what the internet users expect, and that's what it has to be about, in her view.

A newspaperman from a suburban market says that circulation in his market "stopped growing because certain demographic groups have found out you can get it for free, and so why pay for it?"

Seems to me that this supports both the father's and the daughter's points of view. It could be a great sales pitch for advertisers.

The father is in support of "broadcast integration," "to get our brand out in as many ways as we can."

We had to quit just as it was getting interesting--the daughter readily conceding that she and her father had major disagreements about all of this.

2. "Environmental issues and the newspaper's role," with Jan Laitos, professor, Univ. of Denver College of Law.

Sockless in Weejuns as he was, I liked this fellow immediately. The session was much about the environment, very little about journalism. Prof. Laitos regularly does TV commentary in Denver on environmental issues--which he said was hard to get the privilege to do, hard to sell the fact that the environment was as much of an issue as car wrecks and crime--so he has little exprience with print media.

If you're looking for stories, he said, there is no shortage of environmental topics. He then went through a depressing litany: (1) our dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels in the face of common sense, with particular attention to the Asian market which is huge and heedless; (2) dependence on electricity as produced by coal and natural gas, both very problematic energy sources, with coal responsible for significant mercury poisoning of rivers that people, including pregnant women, drink out of; (3) particular to the western U.S., several disturbing trends, for which I'll turn to the professor's own words:

What is happening in the West, in this country, is the end of commodities as the primary economic driver: minerals, timber, ranching, grazing, oil development, etc. Why people are moving to the west now is because of what is called landscape values, and landscape values are because you have this revulsion in places like Denver--to live in this concentrated seething city of a million people where you can't drive down the interstate without road rage. People are moving outward.

They're moving to the exurbs: that location that is beyond the suburbs. In Colorado the classic example is Dillon, Summit County, where the ski areas are, people are living there and commuting down I-70 to Denver because they want to get away from Denver and they'll do anything to do so. Now that interstate is like a parking lot 5 days a week--because of the landscape value. It's near forest service land, BLM land, beautiful vistas, clean air.

What are they doing with their time there? This is the second big development: they are not looking for gold mines, or oil wells, or to cut trees. What they are doing is, they are the biggest industry in Colorado: recreating. Multiple levels of recreation. That is the new driving force for the West. The recreation can consist of low impact, I just want my house with the wildernesst, or people that want to take their mountain bikes.

There's another real issue here, the motorized uses of our public lands, the west, ATVs, four wheel drives, jet skis, snowmobiles. What we're discovering in the law, the fastest growing area of litigation in federal courts is not between sierra and mining companys. Those days are gone. The commiodity users have lost. They are gone. What is happening is you have disputes between competing recreational users. Motorized recreational users going after forest service decisions to open up this land only for hiking. Check out the web sites of these motorized vehicle associations. Because America has leisure time, money, and the space now to do it. That's what the battles are.

Finally, he mentioned adequate water supplies as another major environmental issue in the West. "And the legal dimension of all that," he said, "is that the current water law doctrine that has existed in this country for years is completely inconsistent with the idea of conservation.It is based on one thing only: use it or lose it. If you conserve it you have abandoned it. There is zero incentive to conserve."

Prof. Laitos taught Gale Norton and many of her employees in the current administration. I would venture to say he has not historically been a Democrat. He was working under Antonin Scalia in the President's Office of Legal Counsel when he was asked to research and draft a presidential pardon for Ford to use with Nixon. He considers now-Justice Scalia to have been about as fine a mentor as you can imagine. Yet he excoriates the Bush Administration for its environmental policies.

Where are the environmental journalists? This sesison was very poorly attended.

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