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Stanford University Professor Ann Grimes opened the first panel citing H.L. Mencken’s adage that “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” asking whether the internet really extends that freedom to us all. She also put to the panelists the question of what it means to be a professional journalist—perhaps craftsmanship or ethics?—and whether that professionalism is integral to a functioning democracy.
Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle emphasized that although he was not worried about his profession being usurped, per se, an obsession with form runs the risk of deemphasizing content. These current obsessions with new technology might be overshadowing the collapse of a fourth estate that, while imperfect, has supported American democracy from the beginning, Bronstein warned, suggesting the fantasy that an army of citizens might “delete” journalists is at once troubling and misplaced.
Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University countered that among people who are optimistic about the digital revolution in journalism, nobody is talking about “deleting” the professional. Rather than focusing on an either/or proposition, he suggested, journalism is better conceived as an ecosystem that is becoming more healthy with increasing diversity, even if there is some pain as models rise and, more to the point, fall. He also noted that it is important not to idealize the print media, rather suggesting investigative or accountability journalism has always been a small sliver of reporters’ work, whatever the medium.
John Nichols, who is currently promoting his new book co-written with Robert W. McChesney, The Death and Life of American Journalism, went straight to one of the premises of the discussion by rejecting the idea of professional journalism entirely, stating that he had never joined the Society of Professional Journalists simply because he doesn’t want to be called a professional. He then sketched some of the argument of his book, suggesting that if government media subsidies today were proportionately as large as in America’s early years, they would total more than $30 billion, rather than the meager $1.43 per person we actually spend.
Gillmor, however, noted that subsidies have existed in a historical context of high barriers to entry—not mentioning Mencken’s adage, but perhaps echoing it—while the internet brings that into question. Gillmor resisted the idea of government subsidies for news organizations, per se, suggesting that the appropriate modern equivalent would be to build out a serious national broadband infrastructure, eliminating the ethical quandaries of having to choose who should or should not receive subsidies for speech.
Nichols nodded in acknowledgement but quickly jumped in to note that although the barriers to entry might have dropped, the collapse of America’s precarious advertising-based model had put up barriers to the “entry of food into a journalist’s mouth.”
Joan Walsh of Salon, however, was joined by other panelists on a more optimistic note that although many newsroom jobs are disappearing, a bevy of experimental startups are turning out good content. Further, those startups are employing recent journalism school graduates who enter the industry both with some fear and trepidation and with an excitement about the unknown, in terms of finding tomorrow’s news as well as shaping tomorrow’s newsroom.