Steve Petersen and I just spent the last two days at a conference here in DC called Journalism that Matters.  I went with the intention of figuring out what the business plan will be for newspapers as we move deeper into the digital era.  I didn't quite figure this out, but I did get to talk with a lot of interesting people about their views, opinions, and predictions for online media.

A lot was said at the conference, but I will try to sum up a few points here.

  • Hyperlocal isn't as easy as it sounds. There were several people at this conference trying to get hyperlocal news sites started.  Some seemed to be successful, and others less so (both in traffic and profit).  The founder of told me that even though there are no other sources for local news in her town, she can't seem to get people to participate through interactive channels (comments, blogs, etc) on her site.  In this particular case, she thinks that the town is so small that people fear what their neighbors will think of their comments on certain issues.  Advertising is also a problem for her as "local advertisers just don't 'get it' yet."  Even though it may seem like there is a huge opening for sites focusing for local news, this niche is proving difficult for people to succeed in.  Other sites, including and , seem to be hugely successful, focusing their efforts on citizen media and discussions within communities.  What makes one site work as opposed to any other?  Is it the demographics of these disparate communities?  Or is it something else?
  • Open format conferences have both good and bad points.  JTM was an open format conference, with the agenda largely determined on the fly by participants.  This was great for getting to meet lots of people and for having the opportunity to talk about a wide variety of issues. On the other hand, discussions tended to be unstructured, a little bit chaotic, and even argumentative at times.  I got a little frustrated on the second day of the conference, and at times felt like I wasn't really getting anywhere.

  • The future business model for newspapers is still up in the air.  Even after 2 days with 160 experts trapped together in a conference area, no clear was reached about how newspapers will succeed in the future.  Some see the future in citizen-centered media, others predict print will totally fall by the wayside, and still others think that the future newspaper will be a combination of print, "professional", and "amateur" journalists.  I think the model is still unproven, and a conclusion will only be reached after more experimentation.
  • Journalists are passionate about their trade.  If nothing else, I learned in the past 2 days that journalists are truly passionate about what they do. For them, sharing news isn't about a business model, or getting enough ads. Rather, it's about getting an interesting and accurate story full of important information to their audience.  While news reported by citizen journalists certainly has value, society would be losing something if "professional" journalism went by the wayside.  At the same time, some journalists at the conference seemed very set in their ways and hesitant to accept new models of doing things, a common trend in the newspaper industry.

Other interesting topics of discussion included the debate over skillsets:  what should journalism students today be learning? I think that they should be taught much more than reporting and writing.  Communication with citizens is becoming more and more important, as are online and computer skills. 

Another tidbit I found interesting is that some news outlets are starting to give citizen journalists some training.  One TV station, for example, provides classes once a week for citizens interested in doing some reporting. There they learn the basics of reporting and have their writing and speaking critiqued.  Graduates of this class can then provide the TV station and its sister newspaper with content on issues that the outlet may not otherwise have time to cover.  Citizens benefit because they get to write and read about what they love, while the media outlet benefits from having inexpensive and quality content produced for them.

All in all, I am happy that I attended the conference and definitely think that it was a worthwhile event.  I will be interested to see how some of the entrepreneurs there fare with their websites after all that they learned over the past two days.