‘Chaos to Clarity’

Making the shift from ‘losing the news’ to ‘finding the news’

Bill Mitchell Editor in Chief of the IPI Report: “Brave New Worlds” | Photo: David Reali

Everything about this year’s IPI Report had happened in a hurry. The 40-some entries for “Brave News Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape” had been assigned, prepared and edited in only five months by a remarkable list of media experts and insiders, and arrived back from the printer within hours of the opening reception.

As he had finished editing the final chapters in late August, the Poynter Institute’s Bill Mitchell realized that he had been changed by what he had read.

“I found my point of view shifting in a significant way,” Mitchell said. “Chaos is giving way to clarity. We are now making the shift from ‘losing the news’ to ‘finding the news’.” As head Entrepreneurial and International Programs at Poynter, Mitchell hailed this as an important turning point. It was a sense others shared, that was reflected repeatedly in conference panels and informal discussions, and detailed in the papers included in the Report.

One strong case came from Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, and chairman of the Poynter Institute that owns the paper. Tash looks back at the last several decades and suggests that the lush revenues in the industry of the 80s and 90s just before the crisis – 30% for some papers – may have been the exception rather than the rule.

“For much of their history, newspapers were not an especially profitable enterprise,” Tash writes. And there have been some famous failures: “Some fine papers are still published in New York, but Hearst’s Journal American and Pulitzer’s World are not among them.”  His advice? Keep costs down; embrace new ways; and believe in your business.

“When you think about it, these three capture the essence of the direction we need to go,” Mitchell said. “Face it: There is not going to be the revenue there was before. But there usually wasn’t before either.”

Embracing new ways produced some of the most interesting material in the Report: Patrick Meier’s discussion of importance of “crowd sourcing” shows how a mapping a technique developed in Kenya was used for other crises like the Haitian earthquake, informing humanitarian workers in real time. Mario Garcia’s discussion of the iPad suggests how new possibilities for presentation and storytelling can attract new audiences and satisfy traditionalists at the same time. And Karen Dunlap’s review of non-profit models makes it clear that under certain circumstances, papers can thrive insulated from some pressures of the marketplace.

One of the defining changes of the new environment is the amount of raw material, the simple profusion of information that floats around cyberspace un-interpreted and unused.

“I see data as the atomic particles of electronic journalism,” said Mitchell. With the cost barriers of publishing lifted, it arrives in cyberspace in unimaginable volume, dormant. “Most of it meaningless, because no one has done anything with it. It’s the next task of journalism to figure out how to put this material to use.”

However a recurring theme throughout the Report, from Jean Francois Fogel’s  critiques of “Luddites in the newsrooms” to Bill Nichol’s report on Politico’s success in “niche journalism” is the importance of audience.

“The journalist’s first allegiance is always to the reader, the user, the viewer,” Mitchell said. Any other obligations, to sponsors, advertisers, political parties or governments, jeopardize journalism’s purpose – which is “to give the public the information it needs to govern itself.”

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