Thursday, June 18, 2009

Will Shades Be Required To View This Future?

So much for the notion that Santa Barbarians have become blasé about where they get their news from.

Judging from the standing room only crowd of over 200 that packed the Santa Barbara Library's Faulkner Gallery Wednesday night, locals are very interested in the future of journalism and still have strong feelings about what's gone on at the News-Press.

The audience packs the room (Photo by John Dickson)

I was privileged to have been asked to moderate the panel, but I have to confess, sharing the dais with the likes of Susan Paterno, Jerry Roberts, Jim Rainey, Nick Welsh and Dick Flacks, made me feel like the burned out light bulb in the theater marquee.

As I introduced the panel, the audiences' greatest affection seemed to be reserved for Paterno and Roberts, who both have been sued separately by News-Press owner Wendy McCaw and prevailed.

Paterno told the audience that her successful defense against McCaw's suit came despite the fact that the Orange County Superior Court judge assigned to the case "knew less about libel than my cat."

And despite the fact that she prevailed and that an appellate court ruled that McCaw would have to pay her attorney's fees, the trial judge told her attorney, "your fees are too high" and cut them in half, awarding her only $159,436 of the $307,000 she had actually incurred.

(BTW, Roberts has taken steps to collect the $12,000 in attorney's fees that the News-Press' parent company was ordered to pay him in February by recording an abstract of judgment against Ampersand Publishing on May 22.)

As for the future of journalism and newspapers, LA Times columnist Rainey pointed out that more people than ever are reading newspapers, but they're reading them online. The LA Times website has over 7 million unique visitors. The New York Times website has over 20 million.

While those numbers are impressive the fact is, the web doesn't produce the kind of revenue that the print product does. A full-page display ad in the print edition of the LA Times will run $75,000. An ad on the Times website goes for $12, if 1000 readers click through it.

So while there's an audience for news on the web, that audience doesn't produce the revenue to sustain the reporting to produce the news.

As Roberts pointed out, the printed newspaper commanded a general audience that could be delivered to advertisers who were willing to pay to reach that audience. That general audience is gone having fled to niches that cater to their individual interests.

Much in the same way Nick Welsh of the Independent stole the movie "Citizen McCaw," he might have stolen the panel discussion when it was his turn at the podium. He certainly got the most laughs out of the audience.

Nick Welsh at the podium. (Photo by Taryn Smith)

He pointed out that between Wendy McCaw who owns the News-Press and his own boss, Marianne Partridge, who is a co-owner of the Independent, the two biggest papers in town are run by women who are named after birds.

And in terms of what newspaper readers find important, he recalled a call he took from a reader shortly after the News-Press meltdown offering the following advice: "Get a pencil and take this down, TV, sports and obits."

Well, that does pretty well cover what most of us want to know each day.

With newspapers going from paper to pixels everyone seemed to agree that news aggregators would be where readers would go for information. In Santa Barbara that means, Edhat, Noozhawk, Presidio Sports, and News Off The Press. (Plus some others I've undoubtedly missed.)

About last night's audience. I must confess, I was pleasantly surprised by the large crowd that turned out. It included a number of candidates for city council including Dianne Channing, David Pritchett and Oliva Uribe.

Also in the audience was Don Katich, director of news operations for the News-Press and Scott Steepleton, the paper's city editor.

Jim Rainey (standing) and Scott Steepleton (seated) (Photo by Dianne Channing)

Just prior to the start of the program, one member of the audience overheard the Times' Jim Rainey asking Steepleton if he was there to cover the event. Steepleton reportedly replied, "I'm just here."

Yeah, but was he paying attention?
© 2009 by Craig Smith and