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Online Migration of Newspapers (MIT Communucations Forum)

10/07/2010 5:00 PM Bartos theater
David Thorburn, MIT Professor of Literature
MacVicar Faculty Fellow; David Carr, New York Times columnist; Dan Kennedy, Assistant Professor, Northeastern University

Description: Two seasoned media observers map out shifting terrain in the news industry, as digital forces shake up print journalism. They also predict some likely survivors and casualties of this upheaval.

David Carr now sees a porous border, if not a great deal of overlap, between once"segregated domains of traditional and online journalism. "Whether you're looking at it on iPad, or enabled TV, or paper, there won't be old media or new media, there will just be media." As a New York Times media columnist, Carr both analyzes and participates in emerging hybrid news platforms. He has a quarter million followers on Twitter ("If my last name weren't 'NYT,' it would be about 250"), and says one "can get hooked on that."

The Times has seized on new technology to forge a path back to profitability. Says Carr, "We have a skunk works upstairs where propeller heads and mad scientists do who knows whatWe get help from the tech heads to make things work better, and create more audience participation." These innovations make reading The Times online a nearly endless experience --"You feel like you're down a hobbit hole," says Carr. Special online features and editions may be subject to "convenience charges" in the future, yielding new sources of revenue to help replace lost advertising dollars.

While he celebrates the proliferation of news websites, Carr has few kind words for online news aggregators such as Huffington Post, which he views as commoditizing content stolen from newspapers like The Times, leading to further decimation of old guard publications. He also frets about the transfer of audience loyalty from newspapers to blogs and Twitter. "The dispersal of authority is a threat over the long term for newspapers," especially if pay walls go up around newspaper content. He worries about information becoming ghettoized. "I don't want great journalism to be a high"class district where everyone isn't invited," says Carr.

"The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, papers in that weight class are the most threatened," says Daniel Kennedy. "They're struggling to make themselves essential" doing just regional stories, since they have neither the staff nor the rationale for covering international or even national news. Kennedy worries that these papers may not be able to make a case for themselves with readers, given such a narrow mission. But there is some consolation: In some cities where such papers have already disappeared, or are in retreat, new forms of journalism are emerging. Kennedy has been studying New Haven, where the old city newspaper has fled to the suburbs chasing ad revenue, and a nonprofit community website, the New Haven Independent, has risen to cover the inner city. Funded by foundations and contributions, this tiny newsroom of four fulltime reporters on bikes "covers anything that moves in the neighborhoods of New Haven," using a blog format with picture stories and video, and getting the word out with Twitter and Facebook. "People kill themselves doing reporting," says Kennedy.

Non"profit, and for"profit models of community journalism such as Patch.com and Wicked Local, are popping up everywhere in vacuums left by shrinking newspapers. But the financial viability of these small enterprises is uncertain, and Kennedy acknowledges advertising money will never again primarily power news operations, in any medium. "If we are going to preserve journalism, professional journalism -- and it's not 100% clear there's a huge desire to do that -- we must move toward a model in which the user pays for much larger share of content," Kennedy says.

About the Speaker(s): David Thorburn has published widely on literary and cultural subjects and is currently completing a cultural history of American television, called Story Machine. He received his A.B. degree from Princeton, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford and taught at Yale for 10 years before joining MIT in 1976. He has edited collections of essays on romanticism, and on John Updike, as well as a widely used anthology of fiction, Initiation. He is a former Director of the Film and Media Studies Program and of the Cultural Studies Project.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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