Ifill Panel: Recession Driving Innovation in Media Despite Hardships

St. PETERSBURG, Fla. | Rumors of legacy media’s demise may be greatly exaggerated, even as the recession drags on, Tampa Bay media leaders said Tuesday.

At a panel discussion moderated by Gwen Ifill as part of the NewsHour’s ongoing Spotlight City coverage, top local media officials said the economy has certainly put a hurt on the media in recent years, but it is also offering organizations a chance to reflect on their missions and adapt for their survival.

Paul Tash, editor and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the Poynter Institute — a school for journalists, pointed out that car dealerships, banks and even roughly half of Kansas City schools have been closing, but people aren’t making sweeping statements that they won’t be able to set up a checking account, buy a car or attend public school. In the same vein, some media organizations have closed up shop and many others are cutting back on costs amid “widespread economic malaise” just like most other industries, he said.

Those same economic concerns, Tash said, have led to innovations, such as the Times combining its state Capitol bureau with the Miami Herald

In their combined efforts, those political reporters have “chased” state House Speaker Ray Sansom from office and uncovered how the state GOP spent lavishly.

John Schueler, president of Media General’s Florida Communications Group said the economy has made the company, which includes The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV, focus its journalistic efforts with the goal being “get more people out on the street” uncovering news and also to make sure to listen to the community’s needs.

Rob Lorei, managing editor of WEDU’s “Florida This Week” and co-founder of WMNF radio said news consumers needed to reinvest in their media because journalists are on the front lines protecting democracy.

He said the media play an important watchdog role, but alluding to an earlier mention of the Enron scandal, he said that there’s always the “potential for something to get out of hand before we notice it in the press.”

But as the media landscape changes so quickly, sometimes large, local stories and events such as Tea Party movement rallies don’t get covered, raising the public’s concerns about bias.

An audience member asked about news consumers gravitating toward media outlets with a point of view that they agree with, Lorei said that’s a lazy way for people to get information and that Americans need to be critical thinkers as part of their role in democracy.

Ellyn Angelotti, Poynter’s interactivity editor, said she believed we are “moving from a copyright era to more of a collaborative, open-source world” of media and community.

One example: the Chicago Tribune’s Twitter personality, @ColonelTribune, retweeted a story from the rival Sun-Times during the height of the Blagojevich scandal. When Angelotti asked Tribune editors why, they explained that they wanted to be known as the central source of news in the Chicagoland area, regardless of origin.

Legacy media are still regarded as a source of quality information, Angelotti said, noting that about 80 percent of the links shared on Twitter come from legacy media organizations.

When it comes to social media, it’s a good first step in the newsgathering process for reporters, but it certainly shouldn’t be their last, she said, adding later that “the cream does rise to the top in social media” in terms of reliability.

With citizens helping to gather news and point out potential problems that news organizations should cover, the media need to push hard for open government to allow both citizens and journalists to have better information about how their money is being spent, Tash said.

He said the media must borrow a line from the musical “In the Heights,” and remember to “tell me something I don’t know” in their coverage.

Tash said the Times is expanding its Pulitzer Prize-winning and “painstaking” PolitiFact fact- and statement-checking service to Texas in collaboration with the Austin American Statesman, to which an audience member quipped “we need it.”

Ifill said that “everyone in journalism fears they’re missing something” newsworthy happening that they should be covering.

As for the much-debated journalistic topic of objectivity, Ifill said that shouldn’t necessarily be the sole aim of the media. Instead, “I do expect us to be fair,” she said.

For more on the “Changing Media Landscape” panel discussion, Poynter’s Steve Myers liveblogged the entire event. Poynter and WEDU are posting video of the discussion as well. We’ll link to it when it’s posted. Stay tuned for more from Tampa in the coming days.