ASNE Panel: Web Impact In Future Debated

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By: Joe Strupp

The state of newspapers in the exploding Web world appears to be a mix of good, bad, and mostly unknown, according to a panel of experts from both sides who discussed the ongoing changes at the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday.

The group, which ranged from ultra-blogger Arianna Huffington to Donald Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Company, seemed to agree that newspapers remain a vital source of news, but not nearly as much as they did in the past.

Huffington, whose two-year-old site has countered many expectations of its demise, defended newspapers, contending that they remain a strong news source, no matter how many competing Web sites are launched. “I don’t think newspapers will ever be doomed,” she said, saying her site seeks to bring “the best of the old and the best of the new. There is something in our collective DNA that still loves reading newspapers.”

Graham, former publisher of the Post, praised Huffington’s online efforts, but said his top sources remain newspapers, although often online. “Next to the Post, the site I spend most of my time on is The Wall Street Journal site,” he said.

Graham, a Pulitzer Prize Board member, also pointed to the annual crop of Pulitzer nominees each year from newspapers, saying some of last year’s group of nominees from The New York Times and The Blade of Toledo are unmatched by any other medium. “What the New Orleans [Times-Picayune] did before Katrina, during Katrina, and in the aftermath, no other place in town could have done.”

But others on the panel, which included Huffington’s co-creator Kenneth Lerer, InterActive Corp. CEO Barry Diller, and Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher of The Journal, were less optimistic about newspaper’s chances in the expanding Web age.

“I spend more time on the Internet than in print,” said Lerer, who also teaches at NYU. “Not one student in any of my classes raises their hand when I ask who reads newspapers. I’m not sure so many 18- and 19-year-olds read newspapers.” Diller countered, slightly, saying, “When I was 18 or 19, I wasn’t reading newspapers either.”

But Diller admitted that the online influence has had an impact, saying “most people I know are pulling in information all day long, most people get a barrage of online information.”

Mossberg, who writes numerous online items for the Journal and a related Web site, said he still gets the Times, Journal and Post delivered to his home “but I spend less time reading them than I used to. Something has happened in the past few years about variety online.”

Huffington said that traditional print outlets now on the Web need to get past differentiating the Web and print information. “The whole debate, ‘is it online or is it print’ is old,” she said. “It’s like saying, ‘is it Ginger or is it Mary Ann?’ I say ‘let’s have a threesome.'”

Graham said the Post, which has one of the top Web sites in the country, is still trying to take full advantage of online, without losing the Post’s brand connection to it. “We have a lot of work to do to get the Post and where they need to be,” he said. “A lot of discussion in my house growing up was about a Washington Post that was struggling. … the Post got [successful] with great journalism, but also with trying new things.”

Graham claimed that the paper is focusing on great journalism, such as the recent Walter Reed revelations, but also providing “entertaining stuff.” “No newspaper, no one site is going to do everything,” he stressed. “What the Post can do is produce something that people want to go back to.”

When asked by Mossberg why the Post did not develop a site similar to the new, which has several former Post staffers, Graham hinted that working from its existing site was the best approach. “The Post has a political staff and a political mission of its own.”

Diller stressed the need for many newspaper sites, especially at small and mid-sized papers, to utilize their local connection and expertise. “You have to get very engaged in the community you serve,” he said. “Be relevant to somebody.”

Huffington then brought up the idea of “citizen journalism” and plans for her site to utilize more original reporting from regular readers. “More and more sites online are going to be doing their own version of investigative reporting.” But when Diller asked her to explain “citizen journalism” Mossberg stepped in to say “it’s like citizen surgery, very similar.”

But Huffington defended the approach, saying the site even plans to use bloggers affiliated with political campaigns in 2008 to post items about candidates’ doings. “We are going to get it first,” she said of many items, but said they will be labeled as partisan bloggers and that it will be ethical “as long as it is accurate.”

Still, Huffington said it is important to make online content and visuals worthwhile. “Not everyone can swim in both waters,” she said of the Web and print mediums. “Not everybody translates.” But she said that those running Web sites still have a better handle on the medium, and its uses to follow a story, than most newspapers have had. “The online community suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and the mainstream media suffers from attention deficit disorder.”

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