Dan McGowan (@danmcgowan): News Editor, GoLocalProv.com
Tim Murphy (@politifactri): Assistant Managing Editor, Public Policy Desk, Providence Journal; Editor, Politifact RI
David Scharfenberg (@d_scharfenberg): News Editor, Providence Phoenix
Erika Niedowski (@eniedowski): Reporter, Associated Press, Providence Bureau
Ian Donnis (@IanDon): Political Reporter, Rhode Island Public Radio
Ted Nesi (@tednesi): Digital Reporter, WPRI
Tim White (@white_tim): Investigative Reporter, WPRI
John T: We have seven reporters seated at the table and only one representing a print daily, which is quite a change from if we had had this conversation ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. What is the changing nature of this profession as the era of the traditional beat reporter gives way to this new media landscape? What does the beat reporter of the future look like? Who does the next generation's Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein work for?
Ted N: I think it's interesting, because we're at a time where you can jump in in different ways. My job was just an experiment by Channel 12. They never would have had a writer when it was just a TV station; there was nowhere to put the writing. Now everyone has a website. Erika's stuff used to be primarily available inside a newsroom until it got into a paper. Now the AP has a mobile site. I don't like to make predictions anymore – not that I ever did and I haven't been in it that long – but I never predict where it's all going. I think a lot of it is just trying to keep an eye on where things are moving and sort of get there along with the readers – not wait until you realize that people have migrated, and then you're left behind. You're not in the place where people want to be. But hopefully the standards can remain the same.
Ian D: We're obviously in a time of tremendous change for media. The Internet has ushered in an upheaval in a way that few could anticipate. The traditional advertising base for newspapers has collapsed. Classified ads, for example, used to be a very lucrative source of advertising for newspapers, and that's all gone online. Part of the reason why it matters is that newspapers have traditionally had the large staffs that have been able to do a watchdog function of government and other powerful interests. If newspapers have to downsize, where does that kind of watchdog reporting come from? In some cases we're seeing new websites like Dan works for, or we're seeing TV stations add more people, as with Ted. Rhode Island Public Radio didn't even exist fifteen years ago. I don't remember who said it, but some smart media person said, “It's a great time to be a reporter. It's a terrible time to be a newspaper.” Regardless of what format we work for, I think we want to see newspapers succeed, because they play a vital role in Rhode Island and elsewhere. But it's going to take a long time to see where media is heading.
Dan M: In terms of where the beat reporter is going, it's morphing in a lot of ways. You still need [Projo reporter] Kathy Gregg pounding it out at the State House and you need people on Twitter that are going to be doing that sort of process style reporting. People are reporting it as it happens, as opposed to maybe waiting and sitting on a story and running it in the Sunday Journal. We're seeing way more news – certainly among the people who really follow politics – and news broken on Twitter. I think all of us take to Twitter often if we have a tidbit; maybe it doesn't make up an entire story, but someone's leaving an office or somebody's doing this – it usually goes on Twitter first. And you see that nationally. I think in Rhode Island the reporters have jumped on it probably more so than a lot of the general public.
Erika N: Beat reporting in a lot of ways hasn't changed. There are some tools that are different – there are a lot of tools that are different. When I got in it in 1995 I wasn't using Twitter, there was no social media, there was barely email. I can't even remember how I would have done a story back then…
Ted N: Telegram.
Erika N: Yeah, or a pigeon. But in a lot of ways the building blocks of what we do are exactly the same. People sometimes make the mistake of looking at our industry now and saying, “Because there are blogs the news isn't as substantive.” There is more fact checking going on than there's ever been; that’s the building blocks of reporting. It would be crazy if we could make predictions…
Ted N: We'd make the new thing and make a lot of money.
Erika N: Yeah, we're not going to do that. Despite all the change, there are a lot of fundamentals and there are so many more ways to get news that the news business, in a way, is thriving.
Tim W: I think your answer on this question depends on where you work. Certainly a few years ago a lot of my friends lost work at WBZ [in Boston]. I was already here in Providence at the time. The entire country saw a massive financial collapse and our management decided that now's not the time to contract – now's the time to at least hold the line, if not grow, and invest in certain areas of news. That was bucking the trend – certainly locally, definitely nationally. So my answer would probably be very different if I was still employed by WBZ; their staffing and the newsroom has probably gone down by a third. I'm a little more bullish on the prospect of reporting and finding a job as a reporter. I think six of the seven people at this table right now: their only choice ten years ago, besides maybe the Associated Press, would have been to work at the Providence Journal. Now, there's a lot more opportunities. It doesn't mean that reporting isn't happening; it just means it's happening at a lot of different places. I wouldn't make any predictions of where we'll be in the next ten years, that's for sure.
Tim M: Everyone's touched on one of the key issues here, which is resources and the economy – what's the economic model of the news? Nobody's going to want to work for free, obviously, so how do you pay that beat reporter, how do you provide the resources that can sustain an investigative reporter for a long period of time? That's a real difficult question – not just for newspapers, which are feeling it probably the most profoundly, right now – but everyone at this table has felt that challenge. We're up against a culture that wants everything for free on the Internet, and we don’t want to work for free. Nor is what is provided for free often very good; you do get what you pay for. What's the economic model going to be? No one really knows the answer. Everyone's trying to figure out different ways, including some print operations. The Orange County paper in California, they're all of a sudden saying, “We gotta go back to total print.” They're pulling people off their blogs and online reporting assignments to really push the print part of their operation, because that's where they make a lot of money. I think that's the real fundamental question as we move forward.
Dave S: We do all have outlets that, in one form of another, may have not been here, but you're looking at them. I mean, there's six or seven of us, there's not the dozens of people that used to be in the Projo newsroom and that matters. The one missing piece in Rhode Island is some sort of non-profit news outlet. There are some around the country – Saint Louis, Twin Cities, San Diego – they're doing some interesting stuff, much larger scale than newspapers. That, in very small ways, exists in Rhode Island, but there's not a significant non-profit newsroom here, yet.
Tim W: How would that help?
Dave S: I think there are resources potentially for more investigations happening there, and just kind of…
Time W: But aren't non-profits hurting just as much as capitalist organizations?
Dave S: I mean, to some degree, sure. If you have a few wealthy people who want to fund these things, or find donations that can keep them going to some degree, you can keep it up and running. It's never going to be the size of a newspaper, but you can get seven or eight smart journalists who can't get jobs elsewhere, give them investigative jobs that can supplement, if not replace, a newspaper. We just haven't seen that here, yet.
Ted N: The obituaries for the Journal are written far too often and far too frequently. I think all of us would agree if something's on the front page of the Journal, that is the news that day in Rhode Island. I think all of us are having some effect on getting things into the news bloodstream, but there's a different impact still when something hits the front page of the Journal. Yes, circulation's down; yes, there are fewer reporters there, but that's still a very powerful megaphone, especially in a state like Rhode Island. We didn't have a Boston Herald like Tim and I grew up with in Massachusetts as sort of a scrappy second voice on the news.
Ian D: It's part of the irony of the age we live in: there's so much information you can immerse yourself in – from the Projo to the tweets that we do, the websites – but the thing is, it's only the most avid news consumers who are going to avail themselves of most of that. You want people to be well informed so that important issues in a community can be addressed and that's a role of a statewide newspaper. We've seen the Journal put a lot of attention in the last year on the economy with its Reinvent RI Series. I think the issue of how well or how poorly citizens are informed comes into whether some of these issues get addressed or not, because there's a big impact on the political culture, how decisions get made.
Tim M: I think that there's a real risk if we lose that sort of culture – coming from a nostalgic newspaper point-of-view. There is a real benefit to our society to have common culture and drive issues. One of the dangers that we have with so many sources of information is people tend to gravitate to only what they want to hear. This is kind of reinforcing their beliefs and they’re not really getting a broader sense of what's going on, the give and take of both sides of an issue. I think that's a real risk as we move forward in this uncertain future that we lose that sort of culture, that kind of common thing that binds us all together.
Erika B: I think civic culture's incredibly important. I don't mean to be the wet blanket here, but we get an email every morning from the editors in Philadelphia, which is our regional hub – what stories are playing hot in the region that day. I can't tell you how many times the three or four stories that are playing hot – sometimes it's the big Sandusky story, sometimes it's the lab scandal in Massachusetts – but a lot of times it's a guy who was walking underneath an overpass and a shopping cart fell off, or the two-headed cat.
[laughter all around]
Erika B: But it's real. I have a picture of it. Sometimes I write the story about 38 Studios or Central Falls, and that stuff really matters. Then I'll write a story about some dispute between neighbors, which is really kind of ridiculous. I know that's going to get more eyeballs, picked up in more of our member papers, but that's not really civic culture. I think it's our job to continue to put forth the stuff that's important so people can make decisions on issues when they go to the ballot box. But I can't force someone to read a story about Central Falls if what they want to read about is a crazy two-headed cat.
Dan M: We know the hot story. I see every page view that we get and I know the first congressional district is very interesting and the second congressional district isn't particularly interesting. That’s a scary thing, because it's two sides of the state. Both things deserve to be covered equally. But there's no question that we definitely see – I think – there are decisions made by what people are going to read.
Erika B: Yeah, we serve a master that's demanding clicks.
Ted N: The other side of it is that marginal voices in the old system could be left out very easily. An upside to how things have changed – I think of it like a bloodstream: it's much easier to inject an alternative point-of-view.