SEJ Event at ASU examines online reporting opportunities

May 6, 2009

By CAROLYN WHETZEL

Print journalists considering a dive into Web-based media should, at the very least, start a blog. Even better, develop the technical skills needed for multimedia reporting.

That advice comes from Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Gillmor was one of four veteran newspaper journalists who talked about the opportunities for quality journalism, including environmental reporting, in online news outlets at a program SEJ sponsored Jan. 30 at the Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix.

"Learning about being on the Web and digital (media) forms is about just doing it," Gillmor said. The chances for financial success are best "if you can find a niche and go deep and be the best at it in the world and have a market" Gillmor said.

As a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, Gillmor, in 1999, launched one of the first weblogs from within a traditional news organization.

"Internet-based news sites, even those operated by traditional newspapers, are capturing large audiences," Gillmor said. Many rely on the news that other organizations are paying to produce and are unlikely to support what Gillmor called "eat your spinach journalism," the kind of good journalism SEJ promotes and the type of reporting a growing number of newspapers are unable to finance, he said.

But new models are emerging, including non-profit news outlets like ProPublica, that are supporting quality, original journalism, and innovative multimedia news sites, Gillmor said. Other journalists on the panel —Adam Klawonn, editor and publisher, The Zonie Report; Marla Cone, editor-in-chief, Environmental Health News and former SEJ board member; and Douglas Fischer, editor, The Daily Climate — shared the motives behind their move to online news.

After The Arizona Republic shuttered its news bureaus around the state, Klawonn saw an opportunity for a multimedia statewide news site. Klawonn left San Diego to return to his native state, and with money he had squirreled away for graduate school, launched The Zonie Report.

The Zonie Report does not provide breaking news, he said. Instead, it focuses on five topics: growth and development, environment, health, politics, and Mexico.

"These are the five things people really care about," said Klawonn, the site's editor and publisher.

Klawonn's site features blogs, narrative, video, and sound, much of it produced by him and freelancers. While popular, the free site has yet to generate enough advertising revenue or other income to be self-supporting.

As a result, Klawonn works as editor at Phoenix magazine and as an adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School.

Marla Cone spent 18 years as an environment writer at the Los Angeles Times pioneering a beat that focused on explaining the risks pollutants pose to the public health, wildlife, and ecosys- tems.

"I'm very much an old media person," Cone said. "I've worked at newspapers for 30 years."

Quarterly downsizings at the Los Angeles Times had cut the editorial staff in half and curbed the ability to write long stories, she said.

"I didn't think we were serving the readership" Cone said. "I want to write about things people should know about."'

Last fall, she accepted the job at Environmental Health News, a non-profit online news outlet published by Charlottesville, Va.-based Environmental Health Sciences.

"We're the ProPublica of environmental news," Cone explained.

EHN's researchers gather news and science from around the globe daily. Its free daily e-letter, Above the Fold, is often the first thing many environmental journalists look at in the morning. But EHS also provides original reporting by staff and freelancers that it syndicates to other publishers for free.

"I'm writing the same type of stories I used to write at the LA Times," Cone said. "We're filling the void for newspapers that can't support this kind of journalism any more."

Fischer said his move to The Daily Climate, also an EHS publication, is giving him a chance to help reinvent journalism, a career he was beginning to question.

The turning point came when Fischer's wife accepted a fellowship in Boulder, Colo., forcing his departure from the Oakland Tribune and a search for new work.

Fischer said he starts the work day at 5 a.m., reviewing climate change-related news stories and other information EHS researchers dump into his queue to determine which to add the website.

Both Fischer and Cone have healthy budgets for freelance stories, courtesy of foundation grants that have absolutely no say in the editorial content of the stories.

Carolyn Whetzel is California correspondent for BNA and a longtime SEJ board member.

 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter, SEJournal Spring, 2009 issue.

By CAROLYN WHETZEL