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We were flying out of Atlanta late last Sunday, delayed by a rainstorm, and each of us on the sold out flight becoming increasingly as cranky as the crying infant on her mother’s lap one row up the aisle from me. I tried to focus on this great Brian Eno feature in the New Yorker I had bought on the flight to Nashville for the 2014 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Conference.
The guy beside me, across the aisle, was cussing, under his breath at times but mostly audible, about the crying baby, alternatively barking orders at the mother and then bemoaning his plight, stuck as he was in a fuselage sitting still on a runway as other jets roared passed.
A metaphor for the state of the newspaper industry? Perhaps.
Anyone in this business, or who has followed it with even cursory interest, is surely tired of the nonstop bemoaning of cutbacks, consolidations and bankruptcies. Equally as tiresome are the constant stream of new and improved ideas for transforming the practice of journalism and the future of publishing itself.
So it was refreshing to attend my first AAN conference and bask in the glory of creative, hardworking and innovative people from some of the continent’s biggest cities and most admired alt-weeklies. Some of them really have their act together. Yes, I’m looking at you Charleston City Paper.
I heard several of the same complaints over and over during the editorial sessions. We don’t have enough staff. Little staff, big ideas. Marketing Department is stomping on our social media feed.
But the most intriguing session was surely the Future of Journalism talk given by Gregg Zachary of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
I had assumed we would be talking about how to gather and present information despite the ever changing matrix of digital possibility and government secrecy. But to my surprise the session was mostly about the ways news organizations can partner with sources of funding.
Back in Greensboro the major news daily had caused a journalistic riot of sorts when it announced a few weeks back that it had entered into a funding agreement with a local arts non-profit.
The agreement between the News & Record and Arts Greensboro amounted to the arts community paying the newspaper $15,000 to publish 70 stories about the arts during the next 12-month period.
Hi-brow and lo-brow observers alike mostly pilloried the paper for selling out its journalistic integrity. Two of the local weeklies slammed the deal. I chose to remain silent. Mostly I was left wondering why the arts community overlooked our robust weekly coverage of the arts in bemoaning what it called a lack of coverage.
So the kerfuffle was fresh on my mind as Prof. Zachary began his presentation, setting the stage with demonstrable concern.
“Journalists now live in a vampire world,” one slide read. “New media forms feeding on the wounded body of what was once the all-powerful fourth estate.”
The wounded body line hung in my mind as I recalled a conversation wherein a former News & Record editor explained how the staff had once hovered around 44 reporters, existing now with a stable of 12.
Zachary needn’t spend much time setting the stage for us. Everyone in the room understood the financial uncertainty of the newspaper industry. We’d all seen the reports ranking reporter as next to last on a recent list of best jobs in America.
He quickly transitioned into his thesis, that opportunities for funding partnerships to provide financial backing for AAN members surely existed.
“Partnerships are paths to sustainability and prosperity in an uncertain world,” claimed a slide on the screen. “Ethos of independence must co-exist with new forms of shared responsibility and control.”
News organizations needed to come off their island, as Zachary termed it, and embrace a new understanding of themselves as “providing essential services to a city or a metro area “¦” Zachary highlighted partnerships flourishing across the country, from Portland and Sacramento, across Boise and Omaha, to Canada’s largest city, where the alt-weekly in Toronto holds a music festival paid for in part with local government funds.
Alt-weeklies would make great partners for funds, Zachary maintained, because of their scrappy, hip and diverse mindset. From food to furniture, “craft” production is the local trend, and alt-weeklies could position themselves as “craft” journalists, juxtaposed to the corporate behemoths dominating places like the Washington Post (Amazon) and the Greensboro and Winston-Salem dailies (Warren Buffett.)
“In an age where the micro is the macro, alternative journalism offers unique pathways for well-funded partners who hunger for imaginative approaches to lifestyle, culture and politics,” one of Zachary’s slides proclaimed.
I was left shaking my head, since Zachary’s thought process seemed counter to everything I’d ever heard about independent journalism. But one of his concluding ideas seemed to make it more palatable.
Journalists need to redefine how they, and the market, view what it is they do. Journalists aren’t just watchdogs, Zachary argues, but knowledge creators, service providers, scientists, surveyors, teachers.
“New forms of underwriting will fund these benefits of journalists, and direct activities,” claimed another slide. “Progressive journalists are already partnering in important ways.”
Later, at a session on community building, I heard how the alt-weekly in Little Rock, Arkansas went after Department of Agriculture funding to underwrite a farm to table publication. With local food and sustainable agriculture as hot as any trend known to man, I was impressed with the aggressive posture the publisher took in securing those dollars in return for promoting the topic.
At the end of Zachary’s session I asked a few editors at random if “everybody was ok with this?” One ink stained wretch after another replied in some form of “as long as it brings in revenue to keep us afloat.”
I’m still not sold on the forthrightness of newspapers as “journalists for hire,” but I am glad I kept my mouth closed during the dust up over the News & Record’s deal with Arts Greensboro. !