news commentary
June 05, 2009


Whole lotta hand-wringing at journalism panel

by Bruce Rodgers

Nothing was solved, nothing was really proposed, the obvious was stated and plenty of brickbats were tossed at The Kansas City Star.

The June 4 “Democracy & The Decline in Local Reporting” panel, hosted by KCPT’s Executive Producer of News and Public Affairs Nick Haines and cosponsored by Censensus KC, drew a sizable crowd to the Central Library. And despite a remark about the newspaper-era age of the crowd, young people were there, in the rear seats, text-message ready.

Haines was his ebullient self, telling the audience the whole point was to engage in “a citizens’ led conversation” with the panel. Community activist Vicki Walker grasp the invite quickly — before the panel was formally introduced — asking Haines how panel members were chosen. He called it a “deliberative exercise” where KCPT and Consensus KC sought “provocative people that had a point of view and a blend of experience.”

Mostly true, but there also was beige-color familiarity. Star reporter Dave Helling makes steady appearances on Haines’ Week in Review show on KCPT and Sun Publications publisher Steve Rose has appeared on KCPT both as a panelist on Ruckus and hosting TalkBackLive.

Rounding out the panel was Pam Fine, former managing editor at The Indianapolis Star and now the Knight Chair at the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, John Landsberg, principal, Bottom Line Communications, a hybrid marketing and public relations company that posts and comments on local news and media personalities, and Tony Botello, creator of Tony’s Kansas City, the city’s premier online drop-off site for political news and gossip — and photos of scantily attired young women. Botello is a former reporter for Dos Mundos and Kansas City Hispanic News.

Not on the panel was a former Kansas City Star reporter, any casualty from any of the four newsroom layoffs, or a Star management representative from the business side of the newspaper who could explain the fiscal necessity of cutting newsroom staff. Such absences left Helling defending his employer many times against comments about the newspaper laying off reporters and the lack of local coverage with Helling uttering such comments as “We’re looking at that.” The result was that panel never got down to the essence of good reporting in this case — follow the money.

Early on one truth was established. Said Rose, “The Star is the single most important institution in Kansas City. It’s decline is a decline in the entire Kansas City community.”

Apparently, public hospitals and schools come in second. Could explain why both continually fight funding battles with legislative bodies governed by media-hungry politicians.

Before any one got teary eyed, Botello cut into the piety by saying, “It’s a  business. They’ve convinced people they’re a public service. It’s not; it’s a business.”

Botello, more than once during panel discussion, brought to the question of whether journalism is to survive the death of newspapers that it’s about corporate ownership and rigid bottom-line considerations, and he did it with an attitude resembling someone having to deal with a room full of elderly and little-known relatives at a social function he was required to attend.

Everyone there knew the issue was money even if numbers pointing to the profitability of the Star were never given. That left Helling saying, “It’s all about how to pay the people who gather the news.” Advertising, especially classifieds, has “vaporized,” added Rose. Plus, today’s audiences are niche minded and want their news packaged a certain way.

That’s what is happening on the Web, noted Helling. With that — and because online news sites can’t support a staff the size of a daily newspaper — the Internet allows the audience to become “the editor in the selection of news,” like TV. Helling, who worked as a television reporter and anchor, said, “TV is viewer driven and judges its content on what draws in the audience.”

Traditionally in print journalism, editorial decisions determine news coverage, and what is reported.

“And if we have to depend on TV-like news,” added Helling. “We’re in trouble.”

Botello said Helling was “exaggerating the effect.” Goggle, he said, has people managing their news sources, which include stories from daily newspapers. And, Botello added later, “With everything online, the Star can’t claim ownership and is not the gatekeeper.”

Pam Fine said newspapers don’t consider themselves that way, that “the best reporters connect the dots.”’ She said losing experienced journalists is a big loss and what is needed is a “valuing of the professional skills of journalism.”

Botello questioned whether the work of one reporter could equal the work of thousands of citizen journalists online. “Yes, because of the professionalism,” answered Rose, “five million bloggers wouldn’t get a fraction of the info.”

Still, concluded Botello, “This is an argument about capitalism not democracy.”

So how does journalism make money to pay reporters, asked one member of the audience. And what role is there for government?

None of the panel members seemed particularly fond of government intervention. The nonprofit, PBS model had more of an acceptance. Yet, remarked Helling, “What you get with a capitalist model is independence, which I believe is vastly superior.”

Botello responded, “What we’re talking about is defending the corporate structure.”

To Helling, a fractured news delivery, like that coming from thousands of web sites, is a throwback to the yellow journalism of the 19th and early 20th century. Then, newspapers were decidedly partisan and the tools of political parties or wealthy industrialists. Bitter rancor the norm in the marketplace of ideas. As print journalism fades, Helling sees a return to that type of news reporting and opinion.

“We’re entering the third phase of American journalism,” he said. “Like the first phase. Remember, the idea of nonpartisanship and the objective press are a 20th century phenomenon. That could change to ‘hardball’ every night. People would have to decide on their own.”

What could keep the objective model in journalism and save daily newspapers is charging for online content. But as Landsberg wondered, “When you’re giving your product away, it’s tough to sell  it.”

Rose is convinced charging for online content is coming. “Within five years all newspapers will charge for content, “ he said. Helling wondered about the option of “bundling” various newspapers and publications under a single online subscription.

Botello asked, why defend obsolescence — “dead trees brought out by an army.”

The conversation shifted to the quality of news delivered by the Star. Activist Walker came to mic to say the Star had no competition and treated news as a product.

Helling disagreed, claiming the newspaper had competition; the Internet has caused “the monopolization to break open.” He noted that Botello’s blog Tony’s Kansas City competes with the Star. Botello was unmoved — either by pride or revulsion — by the remark

An audience member asked, what is the impact on democracy, on having an informed citizenry, if newspapers die?

“Use multiple sources is the best way to stay informed,” answered Fine.

With one newspaper in town — in most towns — that means the Internet.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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