Details of the session
Journalism and technology have long struggled with the friend-or-foe paradigm. During the Future of Media and the Web session, panelists debated the challenges and opportunities presented by constantly advancing technology, shifting user preferences and journalists' ethical obligations to democracy.
The panel, moderated by Paul Jones, began by discussing how components, particularly smartphones, are serving as a catalyst for media companies to deliver content to readers.
"Mobile is where the majority of the innovation is coming from," said Sam Matheny, general manager of News Over Wireless, a mobile-news company based in Raleigh. "Data service now accounts for 25% of Verizon's revenue."
The panel argued over the focal point for leadership for the future of journalism - in Silicon Valley or in media newsrooms. One thing panelists were in agreement about is that users' news consumption will play the biggest role in how journalism goes forth.
"If you take the sum total of news coverage [right now], it's higher than it ever was," said Doc Searls, a Berkman Center Fellow at Harvard, co-author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" and longtime editor of the Linux journal. But most panelists agreed that doesn't mean that we're any more informed than we were 20 years ago. In some cases, they said, the truth is just the opposite.
"I think there's an incorrect impression among some people that they're better informed," said Michael Clemente, senior vice president for news for FOX News. "I think the fact that the pace has picked up has made that situation a little worse."
Dan Conover, a writer and consultant, said that economic pressures encourage media companies to give in to the wants of users, often times neglecting to promote the news that is truly important.
"Sometimes I think we're like the cigarette companies," Conover said. "We're not making the place better, but worse. We are giving people what they want, and they are horrendously misinformed on big topics."
The rising role of citizen journalists was viewed cautiously, as panelists raised some concerns about ethical and practical realities of relying on an "average joe" for news.
"Ann Taylor was giving prizes away to people who wrote positive things on their blogs about events that the company hosted," said Matheny. "You start to see ways that very savvy companies try to manipulate what is flying under the guise of citizen journalism."
But, with examples like the Indonesian tsunami and Chilean earthquake, the value of citizen journalism was also praised.
"For David Westin [ABC news producer], the 'aha' moment came when the Tsunami hit," said Penny Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill. "Traditionally your first thought was, 'how do I get the anchor there?' But in five minutes he realized [his job] was going to be about verifying the credibility of the tape that came in."
The future for traditional journalists - substitute journalism for English in college?
The panel also touched on how best to train journalists to prepare for what Conover called "a period of confusion and chaos" in the media. One idea came from moderator Paul Jones, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, who suggested training all college graduates, regardless of major, with some basic journalism skills. He noted that this would improve the ability of experts to communicate in the media, panelists agreed.
Abernathy said she wants to see more traditional journalists focus on putting context around the information that is available. Investigative pieces and analysis aren't typically taken on by bloggers, several on the panel agreed, but journalists have the training and resources to provide that depth.
But will depth sell in a 140-character world? It's probably users who will decide.