The four local journalists gathered at the Oconee County campus of the University of North Georgia agreed that this is a period of dramatic change and adaptation in the media industries they represent.
Blake Aued from flagpole, Michael Prochaska from The Oconee Enterprise, and Lee Shearer from the Athens Banner-Herald said the business model for journalism is broken.
Tim Bryant, news director for Cox Media Group Athens and host of Classic City Today on 98.7 FM and AM 1340 WGAU, was much more sanguine in his assessment of the media landscape.
“The journalism model I would say is changing, not broken,” Bryant said. “Somebody’s making money. It’s always going to evolve. It’s evolving in a very rapid way now.”
American Democracy Project
The four journalists were invited speakers in a media forum last month that was part of the University of North Georgia’s American Democracy Project.
The American Democracy Project is a network of more than 250 state colleges and universities focused on public higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of citizens for democracy.
George Justice, professor in the Department of History, Anthropology and Philosophy at the University of North Georgia, organized the panel on President’s Day, Feb. 18, and introduced the topic to the 50 students and faculty present at the noon session.
“A free press is vital to a free society,” Justice said. “They help keep government in check. And that is why we are here today. To talk about the role of the free press, because the press is in some ways under assault today.”
Moderator Shane Toepfer, professor of Communication and Media Studies at UNG, said that “vicious tribalism and attacks on media generally has made it imperative that citizens have some insight into professional standards of journalistic practices and how to recognize them.”
Despite this introduction, discussion among the four journalists quickly turned to the business side of the media.
|Prochaska, The Oconee Enterprise|
Toepfer asked the four to identify “the role of the press in a free, democratic society” as a starter.
Prochaska, editor of the weekly Enterprise, said “The role of the press is to give a truthful and accurate representation of what’s going on within the government.”
Bryant from Cox Media Group said “My job is to find out what’s going on and tell people. It’s really no more complicated than that.”
Aued, news editor of Flagpole, an alternative weekly newspaper, said “We’re really the first line of defense in terms of making our elected officials and leaders of the community accountable for what they do.”
But Aued added that “part of our role and responsibility is to make money. We can’t forget that journalism is a business. The business model is broken. And that’s what has led to a lot of issues and challenges I think in journalism for the last 10 or 15 years.”
Shearer, a reporter at the six-day-a-week Banner-Herald, said “The problem that I’m having nowadays is that I’m finding out more than I’m reporting because there aren’t as many of us as there used to be.”
Toepfer followed by asking the four to “evaluate the contemporary state of journalism” and give an “honest assessment” of the field.
|Bryant, Cox Media Group Athens|
Bryant responded by following up on Aued’s comment.
“The journalistic model is broken?” he said. “I would say the journalistic model is changing. Which in and of itself isn’t anything new.
“It’s always changing. It’s always evolving,” Bryant said, adding that “Nothing is going to replace the need for the content, in whatever method or medium it is delivered.”
Aued blamed Facebook and Google for much of the problem, calling them “the source of a lot of the fake news.”
“There are no editors,” Aued said. “No one’s checking anything. Everybody can say whatever they want on the Internet.”
But “that’s were the ad dollars are going,” Aued said, “instead of more responsible traditional media.”
“I think the greatest threat to journalism is the loss of local ownership in news outlets and the takeover of big corporations,” Prochaska said, but he added that “it’s hard to make money when you are competing with Facebook.”
The Enterprise is locally owned, but, as Prochaska pointed out, the New Media Investment Group in 2017 purchased Georgia-based Morris Publishing Group, which formerly published the Athens paper, for its GateHouse chain.
Shearer said alternative business approaches should be considered, including “models where the public funds journalism.”
“Certainly letting the government do it is not going to work,” he added.
“There could be like an NPR type model maybe,” Aued said.
Aued said citizens can do journalism, “but I don’t think as a society we can really rely on volunteers. I don’t really know what the answer is.”
“We’ve got to move away from a revenue model that’s based on the number of eyeballs that are looking at something and try to find another way to value our work,” Aued said.
One member of the audience wanted the journalists to respond to the charge that “all news is fake.”
Prochaska said journalists need to be skeptical of stories that seem to fit a mold and slow down in their dissemination of stories that are questionable.
“The news cycle has outpaced most people’ ability to keep up with it,” Aued said. “And so, as citizens, we have incomplete information because everything moves so fast that we haven’t seen all of the new developments that get reported bit by bit by bit.”
“I think the most bias you see in newspapers is what gets written about and what doesn’t,” Shearer added.
Much of the false information being distributed is via social media, the journalists said.
“Facebook and Twitter have been a little too reluctant to tackle this issue because it’s a cash cow for them,” Aued said. “I think they need to act a little bit more like publishers and take a little bit more responsibility for what is said on their platforms.”
“I’m not sure they should act like publishers,” Shearer said. “I think we should just distrust social media.”
“Some of that’s on you,” Bryant told one of the audience member who asked about false information distributed via social media.
“I think part of the problem of the media landscape today,” Aued told the gathering, is “we have too many national reporters, we have too many people aggregating, and we don’t have enough people in the city halls, and we don’t have people in the state Capitols, and we don’t have enough people doing international reporting.”
|Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald|
“We don’t need 10,342 persons covering the White House,” Aued said. “There are a lot things that are not covered because we’re all so focused on what’s going on in Washington.”
The lack of local coverage is “going to lead to a lot of corruption,” Aued said. “You’re going to have cities that don’t have a newspaper” and “It’s going to be really bad for democracy.”
“You get cities where they don’t have a reporter going to council meetings or the courthouse,” Prochaska said. “And your elected officials, they may do something that goes unchecked, that you’ll never hear about.”
“A lot of people care more about their taxes going up than they do about (President) Trump building a wall,” Prochaska said. “A lot of people just crave local news because want to know how it’s going to affect them.”
“Like when your garbage gets picked up or not. That stuff actually matters,” Bryant said. “I guarantee your sewer impacts you a lot more than Trump’s immigration policy.”
“I’m a local journalist,” Shearer said. “I’m not a Washington journalist. The biggest thing, and maybe the only thing, I have going for me, is the trust of the readers and the people I talk to.”
“I think’s there a difference between some talking head on CNN and us,” Aued said. “Because we’re just people who live here like everybody else.
“If I screw up, you can stop me on the street and call me or email me,” Aued said. “You can find me on Facebook and yell at me.
“It happens all the time. It’s a much healthier relationship because my kid goes to school with your kids,” Aued said. “We’re part of the fabric of the community the same way as everybody else.”
In the final comments at the end of the hour-long session, the business model for journalism came up again.
“Advertising is what’s not there anymore,” Shearer said. “Advertising is all in Facebook and the Internet. And so the business model has changed with varying degrees of success to get people to pay for the content.”
“Online ads cost a small fraction of what print ads cost,” Aued said.
“What has killed a lot of altweeklies is Craigslist, because classified was a huge chunk of revenue for altweeklies,” he said. “Craigslist took all of that away.”
“Radio is going to survive,” Bryant said. “I don’t know whether I’ll survive it. They could take my job away tomorrow. It’s not my job. It’s the company’s job.
“But in terms of the business model, every two weeks they put money in my account,” Bryant said, “so I keep coming back.”
The media forum at UNG was an internal program for students and faculty.
Prochaska mentioned to me that he had been invited to participate.
I followed up with Justice, who received clearance for me to attend and record the event.
The video below is of the entire session.