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Area Journalists Explore State of News Media

Joseph McDonald, Joseph Berger, Polly Kreisman and Mark Lungariello

How are changes in the media business altering the news we get and how we get it?

This was the question posed by the Local Summit’s program on the news media held September 20th at the Nautilus Diner.  A panel of four speakers representing international, regional, local print and local internet publications addressed the pivotal impacts of the recession, the Rupert Murdoch scandal and changing technology on the media industry, the journalism profession, and the news we access.

Joseph Berger, reporter and columnist for the New York Times since 1984, described one of the harsh realities of the recession being the Times‘ decision to close the suburban bureaus, including the one he headed in White Plains.  Now instead of four dedicated reporters and two to three freelancers, the Times has only one reporter responsible for Westchester/Upstate,  Long Island and Connecticut, with additional reporters sent to cover any major breaking news events in our area.  Mr. Berger conceded this was a big cut to the Times‘ local coverage, but added “it was either that or cut back on foreign news.”

Polly Kreisman, editor and publisher of theLoop covering Larchmont, Mamaroneck and New Rochelle since 2007, noted that the retrenching of legacy media like the New York Times away from local news coverage has opened opportunities for on-line communities such as hers which concentrate on hyperlocal news.  Others covering our area include the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Patch offered by AOL with 600 “cookie cutter” sites and The Daily Mamaroneck /The Daily Larchmont  from Main Street Connect, with both parent companies hosting many similar sites for other communities.  Ms. Kreisman emphasized that today’s economic realities dictate that individual news outlets can no longer “do everything and be everything to everybody.”

Another player in the local news market is The Sound & Town Report.  Mark Lungariello, Managing Editor at the Hometown Media Group and a panel presenter, said that one of the things that makes his newspaper different is that it is a free print newspaper, supported through local advertising.  He also has staff focused solely on the Larchmont-Mamaroneck beat, which he believes has allowed his paper to build stock in the community and develop a distinctive niche over the past years.

theLoop founder Polly Kreisman tells it like it is

Another panelist, Joe McDonald, Deputy Managing Editor at The Journal News, echoed the other speakers as he explained the effort his organization has made to set priorities for its resources and coverage, saying that the proliferation of media choices makes it essential that a news organization differentiate itself and focus on areas of interest to its audience.  The Journal News has set a priority on investigative reporting, and in particular watchdog story items on how taxpayer dollars are spent, which Mr. McDonald noted have so far been well-received.

Journalistic investigative work is very expensive and has been difficult to sustain during the recession, Mr. McDonald noted.  Ms. Kreisman concurred, telling the audience that many television stations and newspapers have closed down their investigative teams.  In response, nonprofit foundations are being established to continue investigative reporting, developing stories to sell to news outlets.  It is too early to tell if these efforts will result in a sustainable source of unbiased investigative work.  An additional difficulty particular to hyperlocal organizations doing investigative reporting is the reluctance to investigate neighbors.

A recurring theme throughout the program was the profound changes wrought by the changing technological landscape.  Ms. Kreisman stated that with the proliferation of webtools, the news cycle has become 24 hours and readers have come to expect information delivered in many ways additional to print.  Newspapers that publish once a week like the Sound & Town have had to launch on-line sites to remain competitive.  The good news is that offering a web alternative can result in additional readership.  The New York Times reports 300,00 new readers, despite now charging for its online news subscription.

Before, it was enough if you were a good writer and reporter.  Now to be successful journalist in the Hometown Media Group you need multimedia talents, because reporters are required to record audio and shoot video, said Mr. Lungariello.   He went on to provide the example of Paige Rentz, a reporter with a familiar byline to Sound & Town readers, who now also serves as webmaster for their on-line news site.  In another illustration, Mr. McDonald told of a reporter covering Hurricane Irene taking video and photos from the field with his smartphone.  These were immediately uploaded to the paper’s website during a thirty hour marathon of live chat involving reporters, photographers and readers.

Mr. Berger spoke about the new thinking that a journalist must have to produce a story which will be read on the web and may now include things like links, graphics and slideshows.   In addition, because many people access their news through aggregators like Google or Yahoo, journalists must understand how to optimize headlines and articles so that they will be picked up by search engines.  Mr. McDonald summarized the changes to his organization by saying, “Ten years ago we were a newspaper company.  Now we are a media company.”

An estimated 30,000 people participated in the hurricane chat coverage on The Journal News site, illustrating how new technologies have spurred the exponential growth in reader feedback and communication.  A concern of many in the audience was expressed by Elaine Chapnick, Local Summit President, who asked the panel what steps could be taken to maintain a civil discourse, as many blog comments can be inflammatory and sometimes even brutal.

The panel agreed that anonymity often fosters uncivil commentary, but did not offer much in the way of antidote.  Ms. Kreisman underscored the importance of journalists curating reader communications, stating that all comments posted to theLoop are moderated and “a mantra of no personal attacks” is maintained.

Mr. McDonald offered this conclusion on the state of our local news media:  We are learning and changing by the day.  It is easy to get caught up in the technology, but in the end it is about the content.  We cannot let our standards go in the interest of either immediacy or cutting edge technology.

The above program, the first of the current season, was hosted by the Local Summit, an informal, non-partisan community council that seeks to make Larchmont and Mamaroneck a better place to live for everyone. The Summit’s public programs on issues of concern to the community take place at 7:45 a.m. the third Tuesday of every month, at the Nautilus Diner.

— written by Heidi Sickles, Photo by John Gitlitz

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