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Andrew Conte on Media: Finding a sustainable future for journalism

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The model to deliver news is rapidly changing.
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Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

We still might be drinking more lead in our tap water if Curt Guyette hadn’t knocked on so many doors.

Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU in Michigan, kept asking questions about the drinking water in Flint, Mich., until he discovered that officials had removed anti-corrosive chemicals that kept down lead levels. He knocked on residents’ doors until he had enough information to tell the story, he recently told an audience at Point Park University.

His findings convinced other reporters to ask similar questions. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said last month it was alerted to look more closely at Pittsburgh’s drinking water because of a related story in the Tribune-Review.

For more than 100 years, newspapers have most often treated journalism as a commodity and readers as customers. People had fewer ways of getting information and advertisers needed the mass media to reach customers.

As that model shifts under economic pressure, journalists and readers or viewers need to embrace a broader truth: We have a deeper relationship that transcends any retail transaction.

We need each other.

No one imagines an orderly wind-down of newspapers — or broadcast stations — because no one imagines society never not needing that function, Clay Shirky, a New York University media technology professor, recently told me.

“Newspapers are supposed to have an infinite time horizon,” Shirky said from NYU’s campus in Shanghai, China. “They’re supposed to be around. They’re more like churches or schools.”

The key question remains how to pay for news organizations and the reporters who do the hard work of asking tough questions.

When The New York Times went online in 1996, like many media outlets, it offered content for free. By 2012, it required users to pay after viewing 10 free articles.

The publisher offered little justification as it charged for digital content and most readers did not pay. They either visited the website less often or found other ways to reach the content.

People were more willing to pay, however, when they realized what was at stake, according to recent studies at Columbia University in New York and Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., discovered. Readers who were told the newspaper needed digital subscriptions to make more money were reluctant to pay; those who were told the newspaper could go broke unless it charged for content were more likely to sign up.

The people in the second group saw their subscription as saving something they valued.

“For all of the journalists who take a view of their calling as almost sacred … they’re often surprisingly unwilling to take the logic of that out to their attitude toward their readers and instead treat those people like customers rather than congregants,” Shirky told me. “And that seems to me to be a missed opportunity.”

This relationship transcends the work of individual journalists as well, Shirky said. Long after all of today’s journalists have retired and died, the work must continue — even as media delivery models change. Curt Guyette, after all, works for an advocacy group rather than a newspaper.

I am transitioning, too, going from being an investigative reporter at the Tribune-Review to running Point Park’s new Center for Media Innovation. I’m going there with the belief that this work of finding a sustainable future for journalism is too important to get wrong. We have to figure out models that work for everyone.

Journalists still are needed to hold power accountable, to speak up for those who do not have a voice and to ask what’s wrong with the drinking water.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University. His column will appear monthly.

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