On March 29, 2010, the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs in association with the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism hosted an event in which panelists discussed PEJ’s recently released “State of the News Media 2010” report.

Moderator: Frank Sesno, Director, GWU School of Media and Public Affairs:
Opening Presentation: Tom Rosenstiel, Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center
Jim Brady, President, Digital Strategies, Allbritton Communications
Tina Brown, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, The Daily Beast
Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today
Charlie Sennott, Executive Editor, GlobalPost
Antoine Sanfuentes, Deputy Washington D.C. Bureau Chief, NBC News

In the following edited transcript, ellipses have been omitted to facilitate reading. Find the full transcript and a video of the event at the SMPA website.

Frank Sesno: I’d like to welcome you to the School of Media and Public Affairs. [W]e are proud to offer an interdisciplinary program where we specialize in both political communication and in journalism mass communication. We like to say that we are at the intersection of media journalism and politics. It’s a busy sometimes dangerous intersection but we enjoy it.

 Frank Sesno

It’s a special pleasure to be hosting this event in association with the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Newseum. It is a timely conversation, one that will not [be], I promise you, yet another hand wringing, cry in your soup, my newspaper is history, where are the jobs, bring back the money, bring back the classifieds yak fest. Not that we intend to gloss over the problems of course but today we are very, very fortunate to have an incredible group of innovators, decision makers and new research as sort of the wind at our back and inspiration. Still as we know this is a time of breathtaking challenge and breathtaking opportunity. Alex Jones warns that the iron core of journalism is melting. Robert McChesney talks about the death and life of American journalism. And Clay Sharkey looks around at the empowering democratizing world of media and concludes here comes everybody. And they are all right.

But I think we should keep one single razor sharp, defining reality at the front of our minds. Never before in human history has so much information been available to so many people, so quickly. People crave information, our democracy requires it, it is human nature. But it’s fair to ask what kind of information. What role will media play in its dissemination? Can legacy media adapt [so that] legacy doesn’t come to mean extinct?

Tom Rosenstiel: In the next few minutes what I’m going to try and do is summarize the 700 plus pages that are in the State of the News Media report but hopefully advance it a little bit and tee up the conversation that’s going to follow. So I’m going to start with what’s happening but hopefully pivot into where things are going.

 Tom Rosenstiel

The first thing to recognize is that the problem in old media for the most part is more of a revenue problem than an audience problem. Look at these numbers: 26% down in revenue in 2009 for newspapers, 24% for local TV, 19% in ad revenue from magazines. Now look at the audience numbers: there are drops but they are not nearly as severe. And in some of them I mean online revenue was down but online audiences are up. So the notion that people are abandoning traditional media outlets and that audience fragmentation is at the heart of this is not really it. What it is, more simply, is that the audience is migrating online, often to traditional outlets, but advertisers are not following them. We could spend a lot of time telling about why online advertising isn’t working but we’ll gloss over that now.

The scale of the losses in old media are enormous — we estimate $1.6 billion lost [to] newspapers in annual capacity. Now there is enormous excitement in new media and new media experiments in community media, in the efforts that are being funded by on community media but in scale they don’t come anywhere close to what we’re seeing in the market collapse on the revenue side in traditionally media.

Now the other [incorrect] notion [is] that all of these revenue drops amount to a collapse in our media. They don’t. They amount to a transition in our media at the moment. The media aren’t shrinking. The commentary and discussion aspect of our media culture is becoming more robust. I think of this often as the sort of after-action element of our media culture — after people have consumed the news and find out what happens they want to talk about it. Now this is an obviously a critical dimension of what media is supposed to do. In the original, news began in coffee houses and public houses, public house is a fancy name for a bar, where people would come — often these coffee houses were near shipping docks — and talk about what was going on in the town or they would talk to people who came off the ships and find out what was going on far away in Europe or elsewhere. In the United States or in the colonies they would have a little log at the end of the bar and people would get off stages, carriages and write down things they’d seen in other towns. [Y]ou could go read the log and it was a kind of early newspaper.

So the idea that discussion is not an essential fundamental part of journalism is wrong, it is. But as that discussion element of our media is growing, the reportorial dimension of media is shrinking. In a sense we have a narrowing of focus because you have fewer reporters congregated around fewer stories. In some cases you actually have more reporters [around a single story] — a paradox in which you actually have more outlets covering news, [but] each of them is smaller and they all cover the big story of the day. So we have more people congregated at the White House and fewer people at the Agricultural Department. We still have somebody at the big city metro mayor’s office but there are fewer reporters congregated at the zoning commissions of the suburban communities.

At the same time we have new news competitors coming in to fill the space, the void that they see created by the decline in traditional reportorial media. Just in the last year we’ve seen a host of partisan groups — watchdog.org is a group that’s in a number of states that’s funded by a libertarian anti-government group. It’s very hard to find that out when you go to their websites. They are quite clear that they don’t think that they need to be clear about where the financing comes from; they’ve hired trained journalists to do the work but it’s very hard to know what’s behind that work.

 Transforming Journalism

You are going to see more and more of this occurring in the next couple of years because these are groups that have a political interest in covering the news and controlling the discussion about the news in the areas they are interested in. And making money at it isn’t their goal. Shaping the discussion is. So those are not only going to grow but their goal is to get [their] content into the mainstream press that has a larger audience. We’re already seeing that. The old media don’t really know how to react to that. Frequently they way that this is going to work is they are going to hire journalists that the old media folks know and say well this is Al, you know Al, he’s a trustworthy guy — nothing to worry about.

The other thing that we are seeing clearly is that the power is shifting to news makers and one of the things that’s making this happen is the tendency towards immediately. Things are posted very quickly. Old media are making rapid use of new media technology and while the new technology could offer us a potential for infinite depth it also offers the potential for instant speed. And what we’ve seen in some of our studies is that the press release that’s authored by the news-making agency, the government agency or whoever, is often adapted very briefly, or very hastily and reposted by a news organization as a kind of quick story. And that moves and sort of establishes a baseline of what people understand about that event. But it’s much closer to a press release than what was published in the newspaper a few years ago.

And that along with the ability of news makers to sort of play off an expanding group of outlets against each other, speed and proliferation are ceding more power to those who would make the news. We’re also seeing more partisanship in certain elements because if you have a small organization and you want to create an affinity with an audience — certainly we see this in prime time cable — building your audience around your perspective in the news [is] a tried and true way of establishing a loyal audience. All of these things combined I think are creating the sense for people that the news is more of an argument and less of an authoritative finished product.

And certainly, after some years of stability in trust levels relating to the media, just in the last couple years we’ve seen a rise in distrust again. Much of it actually is from liberals who think that the [media have] become more biased than they were. Earlier levels of distrust rising a decade ago tended to be more among conservatives. Now both sides are angry at us.

Another critical issue is what you might call the unbundling of news. The old economic equation that created the news was that you take money from car ads and real estate ads and you’d use that money to go cover zoning commissions or whatever editors thought was important. There was no connection between a given piece of content and revenue. You didn’t sell specific stories or specific topics. [P]opular stories helped build the audience that subsidized the unpopular stories, the stories that were significant. Now increasingly people are seeking out the news story by story. And the news organization as a brand is somewhat less important [while] the brand of an individual story, even an individual reporter, is more important. So as news people, what’s the incentive for us to go out and cover news that is simply important but is never going to generate much of an audience? This is an increasingly significant issue that news people are going to have to grapple with.

One of the other conclusions we come to in the report is that. after all is said and done, we think that the fortunes of this [new] media and the old media are going to be much more tied together than they ever anticipated. And the reason is that unless they can find a revenue model online to monetize news in a digital space, they are both going to have very limited reportorial capacity. So ultimately they are going to become business partners in the search for new revenue models and there are more stuck together than they ever thought they were going to be.

We are already beginning to see pro-am collaborations. How can news organizations use non-news people to help them gather the news, how can they have formal collaborations, how can they help each other. Are there economies of scale? [W]hat are the revenue prospects at this point? Well in the surveys that we’ve done they look difficult. 79% of people tell us that they hardly ever or never clicked on an online ad from a news organization. We asked people about pay walls and first we asked how many people have a site that they would call a favorite website: Only 35% did.

Then we asked that group — the group we would think most likely to be loyal — whether they would pay for their favorite site; only 15% said they would. If you add in the ones who already do pay, which is a very small number who go the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, that number goes up to 19% but it’s still not a very big number and it’s certainly well below the 10% that many news organizations estimate would pay. Now I don’t know that this means that it can’t happen. It just means that right at the moment people are not accustomed to paying and they are going to be initially resistant to it.

So what are the models then for news? Well this is hardly a definitive list but one would be different kinds of display advertising than news organizations use now. If you talk to people at Google they scoff at the kind of display advertising that is in news organizations on news sites because they say it’s too crude. It’s not targeted enough. [O]ne Google executive told us: we’re in our 10th generation of online ads — you are still on your first.

Another is non-news revenue. Newspaper executives [are] in the home delivery business and [they are] making new revenue from delivering things to people’s houses. If the post office stops Saturday delivery that’s good for [newspapers]. Pay walls are clearly another. Transaction fees — you create a retail mall on your website and people buy things and you are in the retail business. Knowledge, services, premium websites, micro sites within news organizations. Mixed audience products where you are basically selling information about your audience; targeted ads are part of that. Amortizing across platforms. There is a host of other things even if you believe as some do that the news business missed scores of opportunities in the last decade.

The key to all of this is going to be understanding the new news consumer. How do people get news? What is brand? What’s the difference between commodity news and franchise news — commodity news being news you can find in a lot of places, franchise news being news you can only find at that one news organization?

 Tom Rosenstiel
[I]n the work we’ve done we’ve found that the notion of primary news source is obsolete. People today graze across many news sources. Even the way the surveys generally are asked — where do you get most of your news? — may be an obsolete question now. People no longer rely on a single or even a handful of gatekeepers. Only 7% of people get news from one platform — say just TV — [while] 46% get their news from four to six platforms every day. And 60% go online and offline in a typical day. Where do they get their news? Across a wide swath: 50% of people still get the news every day from a local newspaper. Local TV news, although it is suffering, is still the most popular. Online numbers are clearly going up, but the idea that these old technologies vanish is probably not the case at least not anywhere near yet.

[People] also acquire news throughout the day — 30% now get news several times a day, just online. And how far do they range online? Not that far. They graze but they graze to a handful of places. Only 3% of people online get news from more than 10 websites on a regular basis. Most [have] two to five favorite — well not favorite sites, but trusted sites. And where [do] they graze online? Interesting: 60% to aggregators. Certainly in the traffic data the aggregators are the most popular. But there is a wide range of places — 30% of people get news from people or institutions that are not news-related that they follow on social media. And what do people do online? A lot of things. Including email stuff to each other.

One big question is whether people now are going to just the subjects and the things they are interested in, sort of migrating to fragmented specialized areas and places that they agree with. The answer appears to be — both in traffic data and in survey data — that that’s not what’s happening. That the idea of accidentally coming across things that you didn’t know you were interested in still lives. It’s a smaller part of our media consumption, but 34% of people say that describes them best and actually the traffic data would suggest those numbers may be even higher.

Partisan news is clearly not where everybody wants to get their news: 31% say they prefer news sources that share their point of view and in the Pew Research Center [People & the Press survey] data the those numbers have not changed in decades. About two-thirds of people say they prefer to get news that have multiple points of view or that have no point of view. And online the top sites dominate, the old media presentation still has market appeal. [Among] the 4,600 sites that Nielson tracks that do news and information, the top 7% get 80% of the traffic. Of the top 200 news sites, 67% are from legacy media, another 13% are aggregators who aggregate old media. Only 14% are online-only content creators. So there is still a market for what these people produce, for that kind of reportorial journalism, if there is a way to monetize it.

Chris Sterling: Now it’s time to turn to the panel that will be moderated by Frank Sesno who is SMPA’s director.

Tina Brown: I think [in] today’s world, whatever you are editing, you have to be much more of an impresario. You have to regard yourself as putting on a show and firing on all cylinders at all times, to recognize that the major enemy that we all have is “time famine”. [I]t’s all about making them pay attention and I’ve always taken that view as an editor. When I was at the New Yorker I used to feel deeply insulted when people said I have a wonderful pile of magazines by the bed and I’d say oh no you know I failed. Because we have to make them read them in the taxi or on the way to the bathroom, and if they didn’t I knew that we’d failed. So it’s the same thing very much today — but on steroids, because there is so much competition.

 Tina Brown

We launched the Daily Beast a year and a bit ago and created the site very, very quickly but we actually were pretty counterintuitive about it. We decided to have absolutely no hype ahead of time because, in some ways, I think today hype is even more suspicion-building than it ever was. It really is almost a kind of anti-hype cultural while actually requir[ing] a lot of exposure — so that’s a tricky thing to navigate. We kept very low and very quiet at the beginning and then we kind of crashed over the top with a site that was created in eight weeks to come out before the election fever was over. [O]ur whole sort of policy was that we had to constantly provoke to have a point of view, to always go against the grain.

So the whole philosophy of The Daily Beast really is first of all we give you 10 stories at any one time that we feel you ought to read. [W]e don’t give you, say, 20 links about the Taliban, we’ll give you one piece on the Taliban, a piece that we’ve decided is the only piece worth reading. The rest of it, 70%, is now original content and that original content is generated really about running against the news all the time. It’s like taking the counterpoint of view. Finding writers who don’t just want to say something but want to say something different from what other people have out there. And we don’t just post anything. [W]e’re old fashioned that way. We feel that we can only get quality by saying no to quite a lot of stuff that gets offered so that we’re always looking for that piece, that writer, that point of view that’s going to go against the grain.

We also felt strongly that in today’s world design matters hugely. That visually we’re at another iteration of the internet where it’s not enough now to simply have links and a basic tech-ridden sort of site that is created by geeks who haven’t really got an editorial point of view. We spent a lot of time on the design of the data base. I’ve always been an editor who sat with our directors and wrestled with them for hours about the tension between form and content and visuals and I did that with The Daily Beast. I went down to the design studio and sort of totally freaked out these tech guys because they weren’t used to having the client show up and sit there and at first they were like, whoa, doesn’t she understand that we don’t want her in our studio. But after time they understood that actually we could give a lot to each other. We became very, very good collaborators because I was totally fascinated to what the design is and they were very fascinated to sort of discover that content actually was important.

[W]hen I started the Tattler magazine in London, when I was 25, I sort of learned that if you don’t have budget you better have a point of view. Because if you can’t afford to go out there and send reporters crawling around the world, at least you’ve got to have an idea about what you want to say that’s different. And that actually has been very much what we have at the Beast and it seems to have got traction. We now have over 4 million monthly unique [visitors]. [B]ut it’s not enough to simply have content that is arresting, you do have to very, very aggressively promote what you are doing at all times. [W]e booked 49 appearances a month on average with our writers. We have a couple of kids who basically spend all day long pitching and booking and calling news outlets and tweeting and it’s all about sort of every platform all at ones.

We just did a major conference called Women in the World where we tried to shine a light on our foreign coverage. [I]t is tough to get traffic for subjects that are foreign news, that are stories about Africa, Al Qaeda etc., which we do a lot on The Daily Beast. And one way is to make that content come alive with discussions and panels and occasions, such as this, where you can really dramatize and make a noise about what you are doing. Because we can’t simply give up on that kind of subject matter because it’s not instantly sort of traffic candy.

[M]any websites today sort of feel that they have to have politics together and media together and foreign news together we take the opposite view. I actually think that subject matter has energy by its collision with other kinds of subject matter. And so in our highlight section we’ll have a piece about a foot fetishist right next to a piece about Al Qaeda and somehow both [give] each other traction in a strange way. Because I think the people in their lives like that mix between high and low, between risqué and serious, between funny and smart and you know all of that stuff goes on at once.

Sesno: Charlie let me turn to you. [T]alk a minute about building a site and global reporting on the back essentially of a team of freelancers. One of the great things about GlobalPost is you are all over the world. You’ve got lots of young people and accomplished journalists both. One of the raps at least if you read some of the popular press is that there is not enough money for a journalist to live on here. How do you build this on the back of a freelance model?

Charlie Sennott: Well we launched GlobalPost about 15 months ago and when we launched I really share a lot of the same stories that Tina just told about what it was like to build this thing from the ground. [W]e wanted to make it have a bold design, really highlight our writers, highlight photography, make it feel different, make it feel exciting and build a team.

 Charlie Sennott

Now in building a team of foreign correspondents these days we no longer have those traditional models of correspondent’s having full positions where they can come into a newsroom and know that when you get assigned overseas everything is taken care of. That you will be a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, which will pay for your son’s schools in my case, they will take good care of you. I feel very fortunate to have experienced that kind of foreign reporting. But it’s largely over. So what we’re left with are fantastic foreign correspondents who are out in the world looking for work and we’ve tried to become is a network of outstanding freelancers.

So we’ve tried to build a team of some of the best foreign correspondents who are out there in the world. Jean McKinsey, who is our Kolbe correspondent, is a great example of the kind of correspondent we have. Jean is also with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and she has a full time contract with them. So she spends a lot of her time in Afghanistan teaching young Afghans how to be reporters. She gets paid for that and then she writes for us on a regular basis as well.

We have correspondents like Michael Goldfarb, longtime National Public Radio correspondent in London who is also writing books. We’ve tried to become an outlet that recognizes that the future of being a foreign reporter is going to be you are an entrepreneur. You are going to have to recognize that you need to think entrepreneurially and consider GlobalPost the base of what you do — a grounding, a steady gig where we give people a retainer to write four stories a month. And then we have a budget for special projects and for enterprise reporting where we can really step it up if you have a great idea and you need more resources. So right now we have 70 correspondents in 50 countries.

[B]riefly, we have three revenue streams because we are for profit. [A]dvertising is one of the revenue streams. Syndication [is another]. [W]e’ve had 30 newspapers with whom we now syndicate. They range from the New York Daily News to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette to the Times of India — with circulation of three million, one of the largest English language newspapers in the world — CBS News, the “Newshour.” [T]hat syndication model has really been good for us. The third one is membership, which is an invitation to say to people: look great journalism costs money. We want to invite you to be part of GlobalPost. Become a member. There are added services that you get with that.

[W]e’re very excited about our traffic. We’ve had very steady traffic growth of approximately 30% month-on-month, which really suggests that maybe people do care about international news. I think people want to know about the issues we face, so many of which are global in nature. [D]o you want to know about climate change because we can have our correspondents look at that issue from 50 different countries, 70 different writers? So our traffic is now closing in on a million unique per month, which far exceeds the goals we had for our first year and we’re very excited about where we are headed.

Sesno: Jim Brady. Politico… How can one cover a major metropolitan area of 4 million people with 35 or 40 people? What are you building? What will you cover?

Jim Brady: I think we are starting with the concept that you can’t be all things to all people anymore. Landscape is so fragmented now that you have to assume that the days of winner-take-all competition in cities is pretty much over. And so, going out and hiring hundreds of reporters and suggesting we’re going to compete with the Post or with other local television stations, [is] just unrealistic financially. [I]f you look at the news organizations that cover Washington DC as a city where people live, pretty much everyone of them is attached to another property that really gets the lion share of the attention at the company whether it’s local newspapers, local TV, local radio. [S]o if you could start anew from scratch basically on the website and build from there, what could you build that would be extremely different from what you could build if you were trying to do it at one of those organizations?

 Jim Brady
[H]aving been at Washingtonpost.com for four or five years you see the struggle every day between trying desperately to figure out how to preserve the lion’s share of the business while trying to grow this emerging part of the business. And so, after having left there, I thought, boy, there just seems like there is such opportunity for a website operating on web time; something that we like[d to] say back at Washingtonpost.com, is not just on the web but of the web. [S]o what that means is we’re going to go aggressively after a limited number of beats where we think there is opportunity where something is either not being covered particularly well or can be covered differently. [S]o we are not going to be at every zoning board meeting in the region; we are not going to be at every high school football game.

We are going to pick our spots but we are also going to not act as if we are sort of alone in this eco system. There are hundreds of really good local websites and local news sites in this region, bloggers like you said, other news sites that we are going to work closely with and in fact partner with because most of you who live here in neighborhoods have local sites that you go to get really useful very targeted information about your communities. We’re not going to be able to provide really targeted information about Great Falls, Virginia and Oxenhill, Maryland and Woodbridge, Virginia. [W]e’re going to have to depend on sites that are already [doing] really good work there.
So we’re going to partner with local bloggers. We’re going to aggregate very aggressively, to do what was once considered sort of outrageous in the news space which is actually point to competitors.

[I]f the Washington Post [publishes] a great story about something going on in DC government, it would be letting our readers down to not point to that. We’ll be very aggressive on mobile. And we push really hard at throwing away one of the wrongheaded terms that’s been thrown around a lot the last couple years, which is “platform agnostic” journalism. It’s not platform agnostic. You have a different experience on a mobile phone than on a web browser and on an iPhone and on television and we are going to try to provide journalism that fits the platform and not just say one size fits all. So we’re going to try to cover things very differently. So I think there is plenty of room and you’ll see hopefully in a couple of months how we are going to try to create this what I hope would be a very different thing.

One of the questions that comes up a lot is, is this extendable to other markets? And I think it clearly is. Allbritton has a significant advantage locally because it owns Channel 7 and Channel 8 and thus comes with a lot of three really important things: journalistic resources, good long relationships with local advertisers and an amazing promotional platform to help people get to this new site. That’s not the case in every but I suspect — in fact I am sure — in five years most major markets in the country will have a site just like this. Because, in the end, having been front and center in the struggle to really converge at the Post the last five years, [I know] it’s really hard to do both things the web and print require. They require different mindsets but also significant amounts of mind share and trying to put those two together is really a difficult task. So we can sort of say we’re starting anew and I think that alone is the biggest advantage we have.

Sesno: And the purpose is to make money.

Brady: I think the idea was to be for profit. I think what’s happened to journalism from the creative standpoint in the last 10 years has been the most exciting time in the history of the craft in terms of the tools we have — the way we can reach audiences 24/7 in any corner of the world. We haven’t figured out the business side yet and I wanted to be part of that.

Sesno: Susan Page. Newspapers as the study points out saw revenue fall 26% in 2009. 43% over three years. What can of traditional newspapers do to reverse the decline? Are there different ways to report the news and get more news more efficiently?

Susan Page: I don’t think anyone thinks of themselves as a traditional newspaper anymore and that would be the case with USA Today. If wanted to read USA Today this morning you could have bought it on a newsstand, you could have gone to USAToday.com. You could have subscribed to our e-edition, which takes the paper copy and sends it to you in digital form. I am not entirely sure who that is for but we’re selling that.

 Susan Page

You could follow us on Facebook or Twitter. You can get into some building and see teases to our stories on a video screen in an elevator. And if you thought USA Today stories were short when we started out, you should read some of the copy on the elevator screens. But the old divisions that we’ve talked about for the last couple years between what my fellow panelists are doing and what we are doing are really getting blurred. Because we think of ourselves not as a traditional newspaper, we think of ourselves as maybe a traditional news operation where our agenda, our mission is to hold powerful people to account, to offer information not opinion. We offer some opinion in parts of the paper as well, but basically we want people to feel like this [is] a major news source covering the big stories of the day and that whether you are liberal or conservative you can read it and feel confident that information you are getting does not have a partisan slant and it’s about things that are significant.

Now it’s true that this is expensive and the decline in revenue sources has been a huge challenge. We’ve seen our newsroom shrink some although not as much as regional and local newspapers have seen. We have a smaller staff that works harder and works in more diverse ways. We’ve forged new partnerships with the 90 or so Gannet owned newspapers across the country. So now you’ll see we’ll sometimes run stories that ran in the Arizona Republic or the Des Moines Register, or we’ll use those reporters to pursue stories that we want, especially breaking stories that happened in their part of the country. [S]o those are ways in which we have tried to adapt. But I think one thing we’ve learned from Tom’s study and others is that it is still legacy media that is driving the conversation in this country. And it is still legacy media that is driving traffic on the web. Tom’s study, which I was reading last night, says that 80% of the links in social media sites and on blogs are to legacy media. Or to newspapers who break stories.

So how do we know that Gov. Sanford was not walking along the Appalachian Trail? We know that because the newspaper the South Carolina State told us that. Or why do we know that Gov. Patterson in New York was intervening inappropriately in a domestic violence case involving a close aide? We know that because the New York Times figured it out and told us. So the idea that traditional newspapers or the traditional mission of newspapers is becoming archaic I think is incorrect.

You know we are trying to figure out how to finance the journalism that we want to do. And I think none of us think that there is going to be some silver bullet — some revolution in classified advertising will suddenly come back and be the financial backbone of newspapers across the country. I think almost all of us think that it’s going to be a mix of things. It’s going to be advertising on the web. It’s going to be getting some revenue from the web from readers. And while the few studies show that people are not now willing to pay on the web for news, you know there was a time when people were not willing to pay money for TV reception but now it’s customary. There was a time when my mother would have slapped me if I’d said I was going to pay a dollar for a bottle of water. Who here has not yet done that?

[A]ttitudes change so I do not find these poll findings descriptive for the future. Getting support from nonprofits. One of the things we started to do is work with and run stories by Kaiser Health News and Pro Publica. And we only do this with nonprofit news organizations that meet our standards and are willing to work by our rules — our sourcing rules, our rules on transparency. But that’s been successful. We’ve also been flexible about packaging the content we deliver so increasingly we do these onetime magazines — [the one] about Obama’s inauguration was a big seller. We’re really taking content that we’re developing for ourselves and repacking and then getting some more revenue for it by selling to people who want a kind of commemorative edition. We’ve done that last month about Mohammad Ali’s 50 years in boxing.

It’s incumbent on all of us to show the kind of energy and entrepreneurial spirit that start-up sites have shown. We have just one more thing we’ve started to do: communities on our website. [I]f you are a fantasy football fan or if you like American Idol or if you are trying to build a green home there are now communities on the USA Today website. That’s really a response to some the news organizations we’ve seen come up and be powerful and we want that to be part of our agenda too.

I would just say one last thing, which goes to something that Jim said. {T]he last couple of years have been really tough to work for newspapers because there have been such serious layoffs and a shrinking news hole, but in some ways good things have happened. You know we are much more transparent now with readers than we ever were. When we were when I started in this business. There is much more accountability. The entire world is your fact checker if you make an error in a story and it gets posted on the web. There is a stronger connection with readers, which goes to some of these communities that we’ve started up on our website. I think the story telling is more powerful because you are not just using words and photos but you are able to use audio and video. And you have, I think, sharper writing for people and less thumb sucking and that’s all to the good too.

Sesno: Antoine, to television for a moment. You straddle an interesting world because NBC is a traditional network. We still have nightly news. You have a variety of cable channels, which is seen as a strength and one of the reasons that the cable news business is one of the few bright spots in terms of revenue as you look across an otherwise bleak landscape certainly in the last year. But I’m curious if you would address this issue of argument versus news and where you think television is going. And this issue of is there news left in cable news, because it appears to have gone, at least in most cases, to the mat.

Antoine Sanfuentes: Let’s look at the hours and hours of news programming that we provide starting [on] the NBC platform. [T]hrough the bulk of the day we deal with news and it’s NBC News. You have Andrea Mitchell, you have Pete Williams, you have Jim Miklaszewski, you have all our talented NBC correspondents making a contribution all day long. [I]t starts in the morning on The Today Show [and continues] throughout the day on MSNBC. You can also go to the internet. [Y]ou have the internet, you have cable, you have broadcast and they all work very closely together. After [the] nightly news wrap, after Today Show, if there is a piece that you missed, you can go to the internet and you can watch it instantly.

 Antoine Sanfuentes
[W]hen we talk about traditional journalism and you look at the NBC model, I think not only are we keeping up but I think we’ve been ahead of the game for several years now. We’ve been working within these three platforms but we’ve also adapted. I think technology will get us there. And when we talk about digital journalism, it is a real plus that a correspondent now can go into the field — usually two people — with the DVcam, the laptop, very small technology that can allow you to broadcast and send your images back. In my view that will transform the industry. [W]e’ve had a tough time but it’s really it’s a realignment that’s in line with the technology that is now available. And I think that you’ll find that within our ranks you are seeing a lot more of NBC news on these various platforms. You are seeing our producers who are writing great pieces, our correspondents — they’ve got quite a challenge to get all done in one day but they’re keeping up. And I look forward to the future, frankly, where we talk about how do you report and cover at the same time. I think the technology will get us there. You know when we look at iPhones and the streaming of materials it’s astounding to me.

Sesno: Let’s open this up then for some discussion now. [L]et’s go to the issue of what people are willing to pay for. Tina why don’t you get us started with this.

Brown: Well I think that ultimately it will be like the network television cable model. People never thought that anybody would ever pay for television but in fact cable began and they are paying cable. So the question of bundling like-minded things together and making them into a package and buying them I think it will happen for certain premium sites. But I do think we are going to remain in this multiplatform world without question where you are going to have to have five or six things going on to make the revenues [sufficient].

Sesno: How about paying for Daily Beast?

Brown: [I]t could become a paid site with paid elements in it. But we’re not proceeding along that basis as a revenue model. [We] are getting advertising now more and more, but at the same time getting sponsorships, we’re producing Beast books now, which we’ve gone into and published two books already in the last year. We’re looking at TV. [W]e are lucky because we have IAC [Chairman and CEO] Barry Diller, a partner who [has] always taken the long view, that this is going to be a three or four year wait to get to profitability — which we are lucky to be able to have because obviously there are some sites which can’t, which kept getting refinanced.

Sesno: We didn’t make money at CNN for five years.

Brown: And nor have any magazines of any size but today’s world is about who is going to wait. And you need a partner that can. Or you have to keep refinancing, which is very stressful.

Sesno: Charlie, you are charging something now. What do you get if you pay and how many people are actually paying?

Sennott: Our site is free. GlobalPost.com still embraces this idea that information wants to be free on the web. But it also recognizes the fact that journalism has great value and it costs money. So we do have a paid membership where we invite people to pay an annual fee of $50.00 a year to become a member of GlobalPost and what you get when you become a member of passport as we call it in GlobalPost is an opportunity to talk to foreign correspondents in the field in a conference call. We invite crowd sourcing but we invite it through membership.

Sesno: How many people are doing this?

Sennott: So we have less than 2,000 right now. I don’t know the exact number. It’s probably closer to 1,000. It’s very much in beta. This is not been done, from what we know, anywhere else — to say what if you did a sort of almost NPR style membership and you said look we think this is an organization that’s out there in the world trying to do old fashioned journalism with some really basic ideas like you have to live in the country about which you report. You need to speak the language or at least be trying to learn it. And I think that sort of old school, that old shoe leather journalism that has great value, as Susan pointed out. If we’re going to do that we need to invite you to support it. That’s our model.
Sesno: And then people pay? Think they’d do it?
Brady: No. I don’t. I’m sort of the mind that the best thing news organizations could do is sort of surrender [to] the fact that they are never going to make a ton of non-ad revenue on the web and go straight to mobile. Because to me I think we’re, there is a lot of money to be made on mobile and I think mobile may be the web’s version of satellite radio and cable television.

Sesno: How do you make money on mobile?

Brady: I think [people will] pay for different things on mobile than they would pay for on a browser. They’ll pay for timeliness; they’ll pay for geographic relevance. They’ll pay to be the guy in the audience who finds out that their boss just had something written about [him] before the guy [in] the next seat [does].

Sesno: Is this like an ITunes world? [I]s this micro payments, 29 cents and you get the story about your boss?

Brady: I think you may sign up for alerts to get that. But again if you are looking at like traffic alerts and weather alerts, if the phone will tell you that you about to approach a huge traffic jam maybe you ought to make a left. I mean if I got saved twice a year by those alerts, I’d pay a pretty good chunk of change for it. So I think [in] the portable world [there] is much more of an opportunity to eventually charge. I just think it’s a supply and demand on the web unless you are producing something that is really unique someone can go find it somewhere else. And even [if] you claim it’s of slightly higher quality at a site that charges, most people just aren’t going to take that leap. I think one of the things that everybody up here recognizes and I am sure everyone in the audience recognizes is right now we are in the middle ages. We are in this time of ferment change, revolution, it’s really exciting.

Sesno: Unless you’ve lost your job.

Sennott: Well I think it’s really hard when people are losing those great jobs from traditional legacy media — those are great jobs. I had one. I took the buyout at the Boston Globe and really went forward with this. [But], especially for the students out there, this is the most exciting time to be getting into journalism in my life time because the models are going to be created by you. There is going to be a lot of thinking that’s going to go into this. You don’t need huge amounts of capital anymore to go out and try to start something. You know at GlobalPost we were lucky to have very grounded solid investors. And I really understand this is a long slow build.

Brown: I do agree with Charlie on that. [I]t is true that we all mourn the bureaus, etc. but actually you can get vibrant foreign reporting without bureaus. You really can. I’ve collected so many amazing Indian writers and I was so happy I did when the Mumbai massacre happened because we had fabulous really current brilliant reporting. From the likes of Aravind Adiga, who wrote “White Tiger,” and tremendously good journalists over there who were finding such original fantastic stuff and I think more eclectic and more interesting than anything that I could have got from a one guy on the spot who was ours.

Sennott: You know I think that’s true. I think the new model is about building a community that’s going to go out and try and cover a certain segment of what used to be in your newspaper. And that could be sports and that could be in our case international news.

Sesno: Let me place a skunk in the garden party here for just a minute. Because we are all patting ourselves on the back about how wonderful all this is going to be, but [what happens when] there is real serious long term digging. [T]ake an investigative piece — you talked about accountability journalism, you want to get into the mayor or the governor or whatever. {A] team of reporters who at least traditionally would spend weeks, maybe months digging, maybe come back with nothing. They’ve actually got freedom of information requests they are filing, they know how to do it, they know what to make of sensitive documents, and sensitive material; you are going to have that at what is your new adventure called?

Brady: Doesn’t have a name yet.

Page: [Y]ou know people who worked in these traditional foreign correspondent jobs didn’t just get a lot of perks, they came with an agenda that was very clear and with accountability to a news organization. And they weren’t working for multiple bosses. I understand why we’ve gone that direction, but there is a value to the more traditional model as well. Just to pick up on something else that Charlie said since we are at a university here — we’ve seen like a generation of senior journalists kind of get washed away including some really talented people who didn’t deserve to be laid off. But it has really cleared the decks for the people who are coming out of school now who have different expectations about what the job is going to be like. You know I have a son who wants to be a reporter and he has every expectation that he’ll shoot video and record and audio and not that the expectations are just different although the values are the same.

Sennott: I think this is another thing that at GlobalPost we’re really grappling with all the time. And that is we actually are looking for something pretty basic in that you find in the best reporters in the world, which is story telling. What we really in the core want to be about is just telling a great story. And we don’t want to try to create these reporters who think they have to do that through video and photography and audio and writing because then they are going to lose the essence of what it is to tell a story. So when we are dealing with younger reporters and mid career and veteran reporters we always tell them to go to your strength. I mean if you are a writer, write. Tell us the story that way. If you can pick up a digital camera and you feel comfortable with it and you can help document an angle, that’s added value. But what we don’t want to do is sort of blur the lines because I think you end up with great mediocrity that way.

Look when you have a network of 50 people, and you have a story like the global economic crisis and all of them are talented, we can actually take that team and with one email copy to all of them say, we want a snapshot right now from the field of the most devastating antidote you can find of the impact in your country of the global economic crisis. And you can begin to work together and creates this sort of quantum effect. So that our reporting, I’m very proud, won a Saber award and beat out some much larger news sites because we were able to look at it in an integrated way that was very interactive.

Brown: I also think we have to look at new ways of telling stories or getting at subjects. At the Beast, when a story first breaks and we’re still assembling that material, we’ve created something called the “big fat story”. And the big fat story is four or five different pieces from different places or whatever the place which we put in different boxes and then summarize. [I]f it’s a murder, here’s what the crime was, here is what the suspicion is, here is what people are saying about it. And then it gives you a way of telling a story in a completely different way. I’m actually kind of fascinated to figure out new ways to do narrative journalism because, having come from magazines where narrative journalism was what I did all day, I do miss narrative journalism online. I think it’s still not the place to do the long, accreted detail story. You are not going to get the same attention span for a piece that’s over really about 1,200-1,300 words.

Sesno: I remember hearing you on NPR citing Michael Kinsley’s long piece about how we have to have fewer long pieces.

Brown: [W]hen people talk about not having good writing online I totally disagree. I mean I think we blow out bad writers so fast on the Beast because you know anybody who spends five paragraphs clearing their throat and blowharding around, you just want to cut to the chase.

Sesno: And that’s different than it used to be?

Brown: Well I think it makes you much more ruthless as an editor, which is what you need to be.

Sesno: Antoine once upon a time NBC had documentary unit, the other networks had documentary units, CNN had documentary those documentary units have gone away. The only institutional documentary unit anymore really is Frontline on PPS.

Sanfuentes: I think given that we saturate the airwaves with news, we look for the right opportunity to do it. I’d point you to “Inside the Obama White House”, which is something that is unique to NBC. [I]f you look at the various platforms we used on that particular day from lights on to lights off, we were tweeting, I was taking still pictures, we created a slide show that was viewed by millions of people on MSNBC.com. We had a network primetime special. We had pieces on nightly news, the Today Show, MSNBC; we had live shots to talk about the experience. So there are ways for us to do this, maybe not as often as we used to but it’s a different model.

Brown: And let’s face it unless Brad Pitt’s involved no one is going to go to Africa. Right?

Sanfuentes: Well I’ll point to my very good friend Ann Curry. We took several trips to Darfur together and Congo and it was really great to see that our leadership at NBC supported us. We went in with great technologies, small; we were able to transmit from there both at the border in Chad and from Congo. Something that would have been unheard of I think.

Sesno: Tom Rosenstiel, from what you’ve heard so far what most encourages you and what most concerns you given the conversation and the research?

Rosenstiel: The first thing that I think is encouraging is that what we think of as journalism is breaking up into many different elements that serve the way that consumers get information. [I]t’s good that they are doing different things — that GlobalPost is focused on the narrative, that NBC has got these multi platforms. Because that’s the way, as citizens, we consume news. We don’t need the same thing for every kind of story.

Sesno: We don’t need the one big homerun place.

Rosenstiel: No. There is essentially a more complex news ecosystem that is now forming. I’ll never look to the Daily Beast to be the New York Times nor should I want to. There already is a New York Times. And the other thing that I think is encouraging is that when you recognize that you begin to start to say wait a second — news is not just the long narrative or the inverted pyramid. I am intrigued too by the idea of new ways of writing stories. The idea of a Wikipedia page for a long running story or a Wikipedia like page where I could go in and find out what happened today and then sort of get all the other background there. The idea of the story that you start over every day is really an artifact of the 19th century. So I think that’s very encouraging.

Sesno: What worries you?

Rosenstiel: What worries me is that thinking doesn’t go far enough. Ultimately my guess is that if the news institutions are going to monetize the web it’s going to be by moving away from narrative. That they are going to have to recognize that they’re in the knowledge and information business. And that there are many businesses embedded in that. And that simply trying to put ads against narrative is a very narrow slice of the knowledge business.

I also suspect that a lot of the innovation is going to occur outside of these old institutions. And that for all that groups are trying to innovate you’ve got to have the DNA of engineers. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Jim, that the idea of platform agnosticism is a foolish term. That the people who are going to win online are going to be platform orthodox. They are going to exploit the technology. And it’s only when you do that that I think you are going to end up with revenue models. To me all of this is great. [T]he news side has opened up the possibilities, but without monetization it’s just good intentions.

Find the full transcript and a video of the event at the SMPA website.