Healthy Journalism

Monday, April 11, 2011

Deep in the heart of Tweetsas

Vivian Schiller was in awfully good spirits for someone who had just lost her job as CEO and president of NPR.

Sure, she’d been deposed by a James O’Keefe sting operation, but now she was in Austin and hundreds of journalists, J-school professors and grad students, researchers and social network mavens shook off the Lone Star and tequila cobwebs and showed up at 8:45 a.m. to find out why Schiller is optimistic about journalism.

It was April 1st but Schiller wasn’t fooling around at the 12th International Symposium on Online Journalism (#ISOJ). In her keynote address she laid out 7 reasons for being cheerful about the future:
• The time may finally be right for news paywalls; after all, people are accustomed to buying at least some of their music from iTunes and, in addition, “brand is back.” Scale still matters, but tablet users in particular may be willing to pay for the good stuff.
• Speaking of quality, if legacy media are willing to invest in local content, they can win the battle for local users.
• Twitter is coming into its own as a legitimate tool for gathering news. Curated feeds from Egypt illustrate the point.
• Apps are “the holy grail of engagement.” People with NRP apps on their smartphones and tablets listen to and read more news.
• The web is not dead when it comes to attracting new users – in fact web browsers are still the best way for new users to discover a news organization.
• That said, the top news organizations are thriving by becoming “their own disruptors.” Smart ones realize that different platforms serve different audiences in different ways, and content must be shaped accordingly.
• Digital natives have come of age, they still care about the values of real journalism, and J-school enrollments are up. These are the people who will reinvent business models for journalism. Schiller said that members of her generation won’t be able to do this.

There’s ample evidence that wonderful, talented young journalists are climbing the salmon ladder in J-schools and on the job. Pushing the reinvention of the media economy off on them, along with the responsibility for establishing world peace, seems a lot to ask.

Fortunately, digital natives won’t be starting from scratch. Knight Chair Rosental Alves and Amy Schmitz Weiss lined up speakers from nearly every continent and they reminded us that the U.S. isn’t the world leader in everything.

Paywalls are a fact of life at 9 newspapers owned by Grupo Reforma in Mexico, for example. In Norway, online ads, apps and premium content sales have boosted online revenue to 30 percent of total earnings for Schibsted.

Closer to home, The Bay Citizen is balanced on what Editor Lisa Frazier called the “three-legged stool” business model. They’ve landed some major foundation grants, they’re hawking NPR-style memberships in the streets of San Francisco, and they’re licensing content to the New York Times.

“If one leg collapses, we’re in trouble,” she said.

She doesn’t pretend to know whether this or other models for so-called nonprofit journalism are sustainable. If the Bay Citizen’s approach is going to fail, Frazier said she hopes it will fail fast. I’ve heard drug company executives say this dozens of times about experimental treatments, but never before an editor.

The ISOJ program mixed research reports from young scholars with presentations by practicing journalists. No matter what was happening in the front of the room, whether the topic was community engagement or the Christian Science Monitor's transition to the web, there was one constant: the tweeting never stopped. By one count, there were 5,187 Twitter posts during this two-day conference.

If we’d been grackles the din would have deafened us all.

We weren’t all using Twitter in the same way, of course. On Twitter we may be lurkers, linkers, predators, spammers, scammers, trawlers, thought leaders, advisors, fixers, or provocateurs, according to peripatetic new media interpreter Madan Rao, who writes about social media for nearly everyone.

No matter where you fit in the taxonomy of Twitter, you may want to make plans to head to Austin next spring for the 13th edition of ISOJ or an even bigger spectacular,

For brisket and blogging, tequila and Twitter, there is truly no place like Texas.

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