Where there’s smoke, there’s hope — for journalism

Richard Bilotti, former publisher of the Times of Trenton, spoke to the Princeton chamber at the Princeton Marriott yesterday, and remembered speaking to the same group at the same hotel two decades ago, when it was still called Scanticon. He had pulled a Palm Pilot out of his pocket and predicted we would all be reading our news on Palm Pilots. Yesterday he brandished his iPhone. He reads all his news on either an iPhone or a Kindle, electronic book.

Optimistic about the transition from print-based news to new media, he compared it to how the printing press wrested control of information from the Catholic church. Now online media and social media are grabbing control from print editors. ”After watching the news for 50 years and spending a lot of time surfing the net, reading, and thinking, I have come to believe that new ways of passing news will be more democratic, will give us more viewpoints, will provide more information and make our democracy more robust and more responsive to the people.”

He answered the credibility and bias questions.

“The information will be no more or less credible than what we have received from the usual media. Of necessity, newspapers have had to skew the news, based on space and reporters and resources available. Reporters cannot help but bring the biases of their race, upbringing, and education. I constantly received complaints about bias, from the straightforward accident story to the most complex investigations, but I probably received more complaints about stories we didn’t publish or that we overlooked.”

Journalists need to get proficient with online reporting opportunities, he warned, noting that the New York Times pays $750 a year to deliver a paper to one driveway.” Reporters will go to work on online sites. Some started by newspapers, before they stop printing, others new. Some will provide news on a host of topics. Some on geography, such as in Plainsboro. On interest, local soccer. Or on advertising, that offer money for clicking on an ad. Or from a nonprofit, like Kaiser.org, which provides health related news and information. Reporters will set up offices in Wegman’s, talk to people and spread the news. Other journalists will comb for news, then blog about it.

The current daily paper business model “grew almost by happenstance. As markets changed and developed, newspapers monopolized advertising in their communities.” This “marriage of convenience” began to break down more than a decade ago, when Internet sites began to siphon off classified ads. “Advertisers began cheating on newspapers in wild sexy ways. Having lived on the wild side they are not going back to boring homes. Newspapers can no longer count on the advertising dollars to pay reporters and photographers. The readers changed too. They are not satisfied with news that is 12 hours older than what they have seen on the screen.”

To illustrate the current state of confusion Bilotti told about a photographer, assigned to cover a forest fire, who called the city desk because he couldn’t shoot from the ground because of the smoke. He was told to go to the airport and a plane would be waiting. At the airport, a plane was gunning up on the tarmac. He hopped in, said “Let’s go,” and the plane took off. He directed the pilot to fly low over the fire. “Why?” said the pilot. “Because I want to take pictures.” “You mean, you’re not the instructor?”

Full disclosure: I used to work for Richard Bilotti (shown above with me on the right and Nancy Kieling of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, left). Before I joined the staff of U.S. 1 Newspaper, I was a freelance dance writer for the Trenton Times from 1981 to 1986, and I remember when he changed the business model for nonprofit ads, offering free display ads on an as available basis. Part of his wonderful support for the arts was his championing of the Trenton Education Dance Institute,, a fabulous project that brings dance to public school children. I support his daily newspaper accomplishments.

But I had hoped to hear an answer for how to get the public to pay for what they are used to getting for free. U.S. 1 Newspaper changed the print paradigm when it offered a serious newspaper at no charge to readers. With one exception, Dow Jones, print newspapers are still offering their work online for free, and they are still figuring out how to monetize it.

“When people ask me about the future of newspapers, I tell them that the thick smoke is creating confusion, turmoil, and nervousness,” he said. Nor did he predict who would put food on the reporters’ tables while they are trying to monetize their blogs and websites.

“After all,” he said, “I am still looking through the big clouds of smoke without my instructor. After the printing press, there was confusion and chaos as the printing press owners change society. Confusion and chaos will reign in the information marketplace until we figure out what works. But something will work and money will be made. No one ever knows what will work until it works.”

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