Thursday, February 26, 2009


So why am I writing this at three in the morning? Because I had a nightmare that Chris Potter, editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, was scolding me. Funny thing -- all your life, you're told from the time you're a child that dreams can come true. When the reality is, it's mostly the nightmares that happen. Anyway ...

I attended the panel discussion Tuesday night at 8, "The Future of Journalism and Democracy" sponsored by The University of Pittsburgh Honors College and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. With the open mind that I always have.

Well, nothing more to rouse the skeptic than three bloviating windbags -- middle-aged, white men in black suits with the added value of blogger Chad Hermann (did you see me blow you a kiss?) -- who's bark really is worse than his beard -- I mean, bite. He demeanor was quite affable. I would have stayed and talked to you after, Chad, but I had to cut out, as the kids say.

And sitting at a separate table, alone? The mousy Meg Martin (aka "token female"), online editor at The Roanoke Times (, also dressed conservatively in dark, who was clearly no match for any of these men, at least as an orator. I couldn't hear a damned word the woman was saying. She whispered. I know nothing of her writing or editing abilities, and she's most likely brilliant, but if you're going to be a panel discussion -- discuss for godssakes, and discuss it LIKE YOU MEAN IT! In other words, speak the hell up because it's a big frickin' auditorium here in The Twentieth Century Club and stop waving your hands in front of your face so I can't see you.

I was seated with my translator for the hearing-impaired (the man whom I kept asking, "What did he just say?" ... thanks, I owe you a chicken foot, by the way) in the small balcony overlooking the auditorium and was so distracted by the mammoth crystal chandelier I just kept thinking of that Alfred Hitchcock movie, Family Plot. (That's right. Just wave something shiny in front of the girl.)

Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of the Detroit News and publisher of its web site,, won me over like Jerry McGuire with this line: "We encourage folks to make their way to our digital delivery." He talked about trends a lot, too. I was waiting for a tingle, but nothing.

There was also much yammering of "forced migration." And somewhat dolorous descant of "citizen journalists." And mesmerizing mutterings of a magical place where "land is free." And the employment of strong, manly phrases like "steering options," as well as talk of "tribes migrating." After enough of this (and in order to keep myself awake), I am sitting there, legs crossed, thinking, "these guys have all seen Shane (the bloggers being the homesteaders, naturally, and the newspaper execs being the powerful cattle barons in conflict with the homesteaders -- but arguably the greatest Western of all time) or watched the 1977 TV series The Oregon Trail waaaay too many times. (The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams being far too, well, just bad.)" (Yes, I think with parenthetical statements.)

Not to mention there was a lot of doublespeak, giving me the palpable feeling that like these guys were truly circling their wagons and maybe I had stumbled into a casting call for Bonanza.

Jay Rosen talked about "empty desks and workspaces," in newsrooms. So I did the obvious math. Empty desks and workspaces in newsrooms = basements filled with men in pajamas eating Cheetos and intermittently surfing porn.

I roughly guesstimated that more than half the people there had to be AARP members. Since I was on the balconette, I was easily able to do this by counting the number of gray heads in the audience. Which is actually pretty cool, that you know -- old people are interested in civics, too.

One of my favorite moments of the evening was Hermann's pregnant pause after a question, submitted by the audience in advance, was asked of him, "How do you know which writer's are providing good information?" I could have knitted a sweater during that pause (and incidentally, there would be talk of knitting to come -- couldn't wait). He gave a long-winded answer using the word vet and blah blah blahed a bit. And apparently, he, too, had recently been watching Western frontier movies, because he commented, "It's about following the trail."

I was expecting someone to bring a donkey on stage at any moment, but alas, I think there was not room left for one more.

David Shribman made a few perfunctory and well-timed attempts at humor as moderator. (He's the executive editor and Vice President of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Trying to sell themselves financially to me wasn't working, either. So you are making ten cents on the dollar. I'm biased -- as a paid writer -- so naturally, I'm thinking, we just aren't nearly as greedy as we need to be. Do you people know how much restaurant food is marked up? And that only stays with you for a few hours.

There was a brief but merciful respite from the cowboy talk, when there was blubbering of experiments and "trying to get some of of attraction." I think I took a nap.

When I snapped out of it, these guys had apparently gone back to the farmer talk. When Rosen was using someone's name as a hypothetical (ain't that the truth?) customer, he kept referring to "Betty McDonald." Could this be Old McDonald's wife, I asked myself? And why does everyone pick on the Irish?

I was told, "In the end, instant gratification goes only so far." Well, that's what you're not getting. It goes a long way. Why do you think there are so many porn sites, and they are so successful? Instant gratification is the new end, pal.

The mantra of the evening was "Today, the press is in trouble." No shit. The two Philly papers just filed for bankruptcy. I predict a slow and painful death of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and one of the publications I've been writing for for years, Pittsburgh City Paper. (I opened that up just for you, Chris.)

Rosen also claimed that blogging teaches you how the web works. I-am-glad-he-told-me-that-because-I-had-no-idea-how-the-web-worked-before-I-started-blogging. This was a very bold, uplifting and inspirational assertion that made me all feel-goody inside. Blogging will teach everyone how to use the web. Wow. The funniest notion was that the web was actually working.
Then there was a joke about crocheting and knitting blogs. (Run by females, so of course, not to be taken too seriously. I suppose we are to stick to our "mommy" and "recipe" blogging guys, right?) Gag me with your freaking silver spoons, boys.

But hey, I left with some free pencils that don't have erasers, a lovely hat and of course, a great sense of impending doom. Which I immediately quelled with beer and some other bad habits.

And where am I in all of this? Why I'm a cowgirl, baby. With the top let back and the sunshine shining. West Coast chillin' with the Boone's wine.

Love them or hate them (because apathy is the greatest crime here), if three really old guys are our future -- we're all screwed. You want to do something about it?


  1. it seems that i've heard everything that was discussed there before, and i don't get out much.

  2. ""We encourage folks to make their way to our digital delivery."

    Is anyone else thinking what I'm thinking about that line? Maybe it's just me and I should get my mind out of the gutter.

  3. "Empty desks and workspaces in newsrooms = basements filled with men in pajamas eating Cheetos and intermittently surfing porn."

    >>> You say that like it's a BAD thing, Frances. Frankly, I could think of a much worse fate for a scruffy old City Paper editor, now that my paper's been consigned to the scrap heap by one of our dearest freelancers.


    Anyway, I just got back from a memorial service for Clarke Thomas, one of the finest journalists this town has ever had or will ever have. (He was also, by the bye, a champion of equality for women, same-sex couples, and just about everyone else. His passing should be noted here.) So I'm a bit maudlin. And I'd add to the list of grim tidings the news -- just out today -- that the Rocky Mountain News of Denver is shutting down this week.

    There's a lot I could say to this post and the one above. For one thing, I don't think bloggers are really the problem, even if sometimes we paid journos get irked at them. Bloggers at least take issues seriously, and whatever else you can say -- they are devoted readers. These days, we take such folks wherever we can find them.

    I don't know much from migrating tribes or any of the rest of that stuff these learned gentlefolk apparently discussed last night. I do think, though, that part of the problem is that we as a society don't put much store on the value of information. People spend more on a Starbucks coffee everyday than a newspaper subscription costs them every week. What else do you need to know?

    Up until now, we as a society have been able to get away with that, largely because advertisers have generously been willing to subsidize content that the rest of us don't really pay for. (Even your subscription doesn't begin to cover the cost of putting out a daily paper.) But that linkage -- between content and advertising -- is being sundered by the internet, where as Lady E points out the ad revenues are just orders of magnitude smaller than in print. But no one has figured out a means to replace the money disappearing.

    That's really the problem in a nutshell.

    I find the newspaper non-profit model pretty compelling myself, and it's been done elsewhere. (The daily in St. Petersburg, FL has long been run by a non-profit; there's a foundation-backed online-only journalistic outfit in San Diego and a couple other cities.) But there are problems with that model too ... especially these days. The economic downturn is crushing foundations too.

    In any case: If we think being informed is valuable, we need to find a way to pay people to inform us. I like the idea of citizen journalism, don't get me wrong. Bloggers can make real contributions, and we're all lucky to have someone like the Indefatigable Bram doing what they do. But the notion that somehow we're going to replace journos with volunteers just points up my point: Our society TALKS about the value of information, but we have a hard time shelling out for it. I mean, I'm guessing you wouldn't go to a burger joint staffed entirely by volunteers who just happened to show up that day ... the idea of trusting your democracy to them should seem at least as problematic.

    P.S. In case anyone's wondering, as far as I know CP should be around for longer than Frances' post may make it sound. You can officially start worrying when her freelance checks begin to bounce.

  4. Chris Potter, more optimistic than me? Say it ain't so.

    Ms. Mon
    aka that Frances woman he keeps referring to