The We Media News Gap: Help dream up better journalism for Silicon Valley

What would you do to provide a better news service for your community? Or for any community? David Cohn, one of our We Media Fellows at this year’s We Media Miami conference, is trying to ferret out good ideas for one community, San Jose, California, from an obvious source: people who live there.

On April 19 he’s ripping a page from the tech world and organizing an “unconference” to help the San Jose Mercury News talk with and learn from, well, anyone. He’s calling the effort CopyCamp, an homage to BarCamp and FooCamp, events for software developers and techies without a fixed agenda. They set an agenda, then try to come up with brilliant ideas, new code or at least new friends.

What brilliant ideas, new code or new friends might CopyCampers come up with?

Should the owners of the big newspaper in Silicon Valley give up and shut it down now? Or stay the current course – and painfully plunge from relevance, ever hopeful that there’s a bottom down there somewhere? Or does the San Jose Mercury News, in any form, have a future, a place in the heartland of U.S. technology innovation and investment – and a place in the cultural fabric of community life there? Might Silicon Valley’s best and brightest have anything to contribute to the conversation?

How about the newspaper where you live? Or newsANYTHING – TV, radio, web, mobile, whatever. Who’s producing the journalism you need to inform and influence life in your community?

Even if you don’t care about the future of the San Jose Mercury News you can consider these broad and generic questions about the future of news from a variety of angles. Here’s a new set of essays on the subject from (now a blog!), with contributions from Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky and others. Here’s a new report from the World Association of Newspapers that reviews the many ways newspaper companies can “maximize the Content Value Chain for efficiencies and revenue-making.”

In the U.S., at least, the business outlook for newspapers is grim. Earnings are down, share prices are down, and investment analysts are bleak on what comes next. Eric Alterman wrote last month in The New Yorker:

Few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago.

Actually, it was imagined. And anticipated.

The trends are similar in the UK – and we’re even seeing signs of declines in traditional media usage in China, which now has the world’s biggest Internet audience.

Perhaps less obvious, or less interesting to those interested only in maximizing revenue, is the corresponding social urgency revealed by the decline of newspapers. Our research finds Americans deeply dissatisfied with their traditional sources of news, but also deeply mindful of the importance of journalism in their communities.

So there’s a gap to be filled – an opportunity to provide better journalism for people who believe it’s important. This is the We Media News Gap.

But what, exactly, does that mean? What does better journalism look like in the culture of We Media – the mediascape of free, networked, digital everything, news unbundled from advertising, ubiquitous, always-on creation, distribution, recommendation, sharing and information overload?

From the CopyCamp web site:

CopyCamp is a one day un-conference that brings community members into the newsroom to meet and discuss important issues with local journalists. After an initial meet and greet, reporters from the San Jose Mercury News and active members of the San Jose community will suggest topics they believe will benefit through an open dialogue in the hopes of improving the quality of journalism in the Bay Area and figuring out how the SJMN can better cover under represented communities.

Several editors and reporters from the newspaper have signed up to attend, including the newspaper’s influential designer/business development director, Matt Mansfield – but he’s also on his way out the door via the newspaper’s most recent round of layoffs/voluntary “departures.” Here’s the CopyCamp participant list.

Analysis: If chatting with members of the community you purport to serve is a novel idea for a newspaper company then CopyCamp is too little and too late to help. But making such conversations a priority, and re-imagining the relationship between a news organization and its community, is a big idea – and taking it more seriously would be a smart step for anyone who wants to meet the We Media News Gap.

You can find more details about CopyCamp and register to attend here.

3 thoughts on “The We Media News Gap: Help dream up better journalism for Silicon Valley

  1. Telling that the Mercury-News isn’t organizing this itself! The conference will take some skillful moderating, lest it descend into, “why don’t you cover my [pet cause, hobby]?” Will the newspaper listen? Does it matter if they did? The irony is summed up in the attendance of Mansfield who will be departing anyways. How about a meeting (not sure why it needs to be called an unconference) bringing together not just community folks and the dying newspaper, but other online outlets — ValleyWag for one.

  2. Also, I’m longing to hear the iFOCOS take on the New Yorker article. It was painfully out of date (not coincidence that many of the quotes he used were from 2005 — and Alterman writes as if he’s the first to discover the “irony” that much of the online world feeds on copy produced by professional journalists), not to mention comes down ultimately on the nostalgia/democracy-will-come-to-an-end-when-newspapers-die side. I’d love to hear Andrew and Dale rip it apart…..

  3. Andrea, I wish I could deliver and start ripping, but I thought Eric Alterman did a nice job with the New Yorker story. It was vastly more thoughtful than a disdainful blog-bashing essay by Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, published in the New Yorker in 2006.

    I’m not even going to rip Alterman’s nostalgia, or mythology, for a national dialog defined by The New York Times, or the implication that The Huffington Post is ultimately inferior to a real newspaper because it lacks sports and book sections.

    Those may be windows into the author’s heart, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He also quoted The Simpsons.

    Yes, I find today’s diversity of media experiences, expectations and inclinations more compelling than the preferences of any one individual, even one who writes for The New Yorker, loves The New York Times and can’t fathom a national dialog without it. I can, but Alterman (and The Simpsons) got the big story right: the future of high-priced institutional journalism as practiced or preached for the past half century by enormously profitable U.S. newspaper companies, like The Times, is undoubtedly dimmer than its past, at least in the near-term. The monolithic institutions that crafted, packaged and delivered to our doorsteps the first rough-draft of multiple genocides, the planet’s deadliest wars ever, depopulating hunger, suburbanization, urban decay, racial and ethnic animosities and atrocities, and expanding economic inequities between rich and poor are themselves in decline.

    But the world is changing. It’s hard for me to think about journalism or my narrative strictly in terms of U.S. companies, national interest and national dialog – the We Media news network is at once global, hyperlocal and borderless.

    I’m optimistic that the world of We Media will be better-informed than the world of THE media. I hope new institutions or networks of institutions and individuals will fill the void. Since 9/11 the U.S. online audience for The Guardian, a left-leaning “serious” newspaper from London, has exploded and is now a competitor to The Times for online audiences and influence. So, too, is The Huffington Post. Others will follow.

    Our national, global or local consciousness may be clouded by the confusion of the crowd, or informed by its wisdom AND by big but somewhat less profitable institutions. We still don’t know. The emergence of the We Media culture has only just begun. Maybe I’ll write a We Media narrative for The New Yorker. If I do, I hope I can get as much right as Alterman got in his story of The Media.

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