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Less local news in growing media landscape

The most-read story Thursday on the Huffington Post blog was an article about Subway’s new breakfast menu, said Dr. Dina Ibrahim, an assistant professor of Broadcast and Electronic Communications at San Francisco State, lamenting just how turbulent the world of journalism has become.

Ibrahim was one of a dozen panelists who gathered last Thursday to discuss the future of news at a public forum hosted by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library.

The topic of the March 25 meeting: ‘Your Views on Local News,’ a discussion about how technological shifts and where newsrooms get funding affect the quality and scope of local news coverage.

The business model that has sustained newspapers for more than a century is now failing. Advertising revenues continue to fall. Readers are canceling subscriptions to newspapers and flocking to internet news Web sites where content is given away for free.

The latest figures released by the Newspaper Association of America revealed that in 2009, print advertising revenue dropped 28.6 percent to $24.82 billion. That total represented a decline from 2008 and the first time newspapers generated less than $25 billion in print since 1985.

It was also the fourth straight year of falling revenues. Online advertising revenues also dipped 11.8 percent in 2009, down from 2008.

Broadcast news outlets have also seen revenues decline drastically in recent years.

In response to the upheaval in the industry, journalists are beginning to experiment with new models for delivering news.

Last week, the non-profit news start-up funded by local philanthropist Warren Hellman, the Bay Area News Project unveiled its new name and branding that newsroom leaders hope will inspire a rebirth in local journalism.

With a new Web site, look and name, The Bay Citizen will be working with the New York Times, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and other local bloggers to provide in-depth reporting about the San Francisco Bay Area.

Large donations, PBS-style membership pledges, advertising revenue and syndication fees will prop-up the organization financially — one that hopes to generate upwards of $12 million in a few years.

Bay Citizen CEO Liza Frazier told the forum audience that no one media organization will solve the complex and troubling issues facing the journalism industry, but praised the way non-profit organizations such as her own are contributing and reporting local new stories by actively participating in civil and community life.

Frazier said that in the end journalists have a responsibility to gather facts to allow readers to know “what they need to know that they did not know before.”

“Getting people to read something different, journalism lays down your assumptions and challenges conventional thought,” said Glenn Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-London bureau chief for the Washington Post.

There was little argument from the panelists that the media landscape is changing, themselves a diverse group that included Mark Adkins, president of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sandy Close, executive director of New American Media and Ron Dellums, Oakland mayor and former U.S. House Representative.

“Media is a business,” Dellums said, emphasizing the competitiveness of the industry.

With new technologies anyone with a laptop can call themselves a journalist today. Presented with countless sources, readers can pick and choose what they want to consume, so it is no longer the case that a handful of dominant media organizations are the only places people look to for news.

Venise Wagner, the chairperson of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, recalled many of her students relying on late night satirical television show, ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,’ for their content.

Although she found parody to be effective, it can often be mistaken for real news. Students, as well as many other viewers and readers, are tuned out by what Wagner called “legacy,” or traditional, reporting because “there is not any one place to get” news in today’s world.

It’s a troubling revelation that all panelists agreed on: there’s not enough quality journalism in our growing media landscape.

Cross-posted from California Beat.

Tom Murphy, board member of SPJ’s Northern California chapter, and Hana Baba and Sandip Roy of local nonprofit radio station KALW hosted the forum. Upcoming events include a community media workshop on March 30 at Laney College and SPJ’s Journalism Innovations III Conference from April 30 to May 2 at the University of San Francisco.

Contact Melodie Miu at