Further Blips on The News Screen Portend...What?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday February 09, 2011 - 01:35:00 PM

More milestones this week in the big ongoing quest for The Future of Journalism. Arianna Huffington leapt gleefully into bed with AOL.com, prompting a friend, a journalist with long experience who has been covering environmental issues from the Midwest for HuffPo’s Green Page, to write “Bummer, really, and somewhat disgusting that Huffington et al have made millions on the unpaid work of HuffPo bloggers....”

She has a point, and yet the discussion could be turned on its head:

Only some of these writers, the ones who are paid for work published elsewhere, are providing something of value for free. But the Huffington Post has been providing hundreds of otherwise unpublished writers with a platform at absolutely no charge to them. Just sayin’.

And there’s a third, often ignored, perspective, that of the readers, also known as the seekers after information. They don’t need to care who’s making and who’s losing money as long as the information (or entertainment) continues to flow in their direction. 

My own take on it, as someone who’s done both marketing and journalism at various points in my life, is that Arianna is a so-so journalist and a brilliant marketeer. She’s turned herself and her unusual first name into a saleable brand, just like that other marketing genius, Oprah. Arianna’s website contains a few nuggets of valuable information, much of it re-packaged from other sources or supplied free by bloggers, plus an amazing volume of celebrity fluff, cotton candy for the masses. There are many other sites which follow similar models, but only Arianna has invented a household word, the HuffPo. 

The other partner in the deal, AOL.com, brings value to the table too, though probably not its user base. Among my own friends, the only ones still using AOL for browsing and/or email are slow to change, though they might have been early adopters way back at the dawn of the internet age. 

An interesting experiment in the AOL mix can be found in the Patch online papers. These supply a basic amount of local news for small towns like El Cerrito and Albany using a mix of professional (i.e. paid) and volunteer (i.e. free) reporting. 

The El Cerrito Patch this week had a good report on the local implications of the HuffPo-AOL deal by Charles Burress, the editor, who covered Berkeley for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years. Reading the Albany Patch, I learned that a couple of Berkeley developers are going into the cannabis business. 

Another announcement this week pointed to a new direction in video journalism. Keith Olbermann, fired by MSNBC after (post hoc, not necessarily propter hoc) he contributed to a couple of Democratic campaigns, is joining Current TV, the little cable TV operation started by ex-newsie Al Gore. Olberman’s bound to liven up the reportedly dull Current, shouter and arm-wrestler that he is. No comment from me, since I watch TV only on the internet, and I’ve never seen Current TV, if it’s even available around here. But my mother, who follows C-Span the way some men follow football, will be delighted to have Keith back if she can get him. (Actually she follows football too.) 

My own interest in all this excitement is from the politically-minded citizen’s perspective, similar to but not identical with the reader’s perspective. I fervently believe things will work better if everyone knows what’s going on, especially what government’s doing on our behalf and with our money. So the more news that gets out by whatever means available, the better off we’ll be. 

That’s why I welcome having a variety of sources for news, even though I’ve never spent much of my own time watching television, either broadcast or cable. I do read several print papers: one metropolitan, one local and one national. I keep track of what the others are doing by checking them out online from time to time. I subscribe to more informational magazines of all kinds than I have time to read conscientiously, and I rely on my partner to read others and tell me about them. I listen to the radio a lot, usually while I’m doing other things. Between here and Santa Cruz I hear four different stations which carry NPR-type programs and sometimes I even listen to KPFA. 

But what about local news? My neighborhood association just hosted a panel presentation of a couple of new Berkeley-centric publications, one (the Berkeley Times) a print weekly and the other (berkeleyside.com) online. Since I wasn’t’ able to go myself, I’m grateful that a frequent Planet contributor attended, and he promises a report in the near future. 

As far as I’ve been able to determine, each of these has a somewhat different emphasis, which might augur a breadth of coverage which would be beneficial to local citizens. Both have been accused of stressing “feel-good” topics, but that’s not really fair, because a diverse town like Berkeley has a diversity of interests, including but not limited to kids, food and real estate, the staple of small town sunshine sheets since the early days of the republic. With several publications available at the click of a mouse, it could be almost like getting back the local dailies of old, with news and lifestyle features all available at once. 

And we also have the Daily Cal, covering the world as seen from Sather Gate, as well as the East Bay Express, which seems to be shifting into doing actual news coverage of Berkeley from time to time, and the huge Bay Area News Group conglomerate, which puts on a different face for every locale: the same article might appear in the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, the West County Times, the Berkeley Voice, the Albany Journal and the San Jose Mercury on any given day. 

The San Francisco Chronicle mostly continues its historic practice of creating the odd Bezerkeley story to reinforce historic stereotypes. The online Bay Citizen, when I occasionally check it out, seems to have little or no original reporting outside of the big city, relying on hyper-local sites for its coverage of outlying areas, such as it is. 

And what are we doing in this space? Well, that’s the question du jour, isn’t it? We’re profoundly grateful for the stellar work being done for us by reporters who must keep their day jobs since we can’t pay them because of our bizarre financial circumstances. We’re also very grateful to the readers who have contributed to the Fund for Local Reporting, which sometimes has enough money in it to pay for specific articles, though not very well. 

Our goals continue to be the traditional ones: To let people know what’s coming down before it lands on them. To print the news and raise hell. To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. By any means necessary. Clichés, all, but worthy clichés that have stood the test of time. 

Let's hope that Olbermann, Huffington and all rest of the high profile celebrity journalists share these goals, at least some of them, some of the time.