Blue Sky On a Gray Day

Karlmartinobyalbertyee The question was, Who are you and why are you here? Not just the facts, but the emotions - how do you feel about the assault on news right now?

Feel? I told a little story today. Every morning I walk to the end of the driveway, and pick up a newspaper or three. By the time I make it back inside my sons are already talking about something they read in the paper. They've gone online. And that's ok - hopeful, even. They're reading. They just don't read the actual paper.

We all had different stories - 40 or so of us who met on the top floor of Penn's Annenberg School to blue sky on a gray day and tried to fashion the local news organization of the 21st century. Many of us came from opposite sides of the street - newspaper people and bloggers, reporters and editors, mainstream and indie types, a polymath who never went to college and the dean of an Ivy League school.

We called it the Unconference, and there was no panel, no microphones, no agenda. We worked from a wiki whiteboard, which means a big screen showed the order of the day as we made it up from our seats. There were a few unrules, the best being: no commercials and no tomato throwing. What surprised me is that people stuck to them. I was expecting a raging hall of egos. Instead, we actually worked on this oddly named notion of the next thing in journalism, The Norg.

Will Bunch at the Daily News's Attytood blog named it. You could call it The Philadelphia Experiment. It's an attempt to pool talent and ignore rivalries and save this beast before it sinks into the tar pit. Or before Craigslist sticks its spear in our flank. What emerged from our nine to five session was a still-in-progress model for readers taking control of the enterprise, for tapping the expertise of the many, to deliver the goods with speed and style, and with transparency and accountability, and with a lot of other lofty words that we struggled to flesh out.

I wrote down these elements of a NORG: credible, interactive, on many platforms, widely distributed, devoted to media literacy, with voice and personality, enabling members of the community to inform each other, continuous, ethical, economically viable, with a watchdog function, community-owned, that empowers people to speak for themselves, First Amendment-protected, flexible, adaptive, transparent.

The elephant of the room is the iffy futures of The Inquirer and The Daily News. Knight Ridder has sold us to McClatchy, which doesn't want us. Bids to buy the dirty dozen are due Tuesday.

Jeff Jarvis, who writes Buzzmachine, was live blogging the event. Read his coverage here. He calls his post, "Saving Journalism and Killing the Press." In it he announces "this is the day the war ends. This isn't journalism against bloggers any more. It never was, really. This is journalists and bloggers together in favor of the news."

The group broke into clusters to dig deeper into some of the ideas, such as how does a Norg serve a democracy where not everyone is online, what are the financial models that could make a new collective work, how do we hook young readers who are used to free and edgy, what are the ethical responsibilities of citizen journalism. A summary is to be posted at

There was a lot of talk about objectivity, and whether journalism fails to get to the story when it strives for balance.

"It's a phony debate," said Duncan "Atrios" Black, whose hard-hitting lefty blog, Eschaton, attracts about 120,000 page views a day. "And it's killing newspapers." Just be open about your biases, he said. People would rather a tough opinion than something so balanced it doesn't go anywhere. Bunch said every writer should post his or her bio.

Susie Madrak, a former newspaper editor who writes Suburban Guerrilla, recommended that papers use wire services to cover the routine and send reporters to mine corruption in the burbs. They should stop those giant megaturds (my word, sorry) conceived to win Pulitzers. "Maybe what you win is readership," she said. Jarvis said that if he ever returned to helm a paper, he'd implement flak-free days, where no news can come from a hand-out.

Toward the end someone asked if any of these fine ideas might work their way into the local newspapers or their online operations. That depends who winds up owning us, of course. A big chain with its own Internet sites would likely fit us into their existing system, the guys said.

Inquirer editorial page honcho Chris Satullo told the group that committees have been turning out strategic plans in the hope that a new owner asks 'What do you guys think?" And many of the ideas that emerged from the Norg unconference, he said, "are much more interesting than what we've come up with."

Plans are to move ahead with a blog, a wiki page, more discussion, another non-virtual meeting, even. The stakes? Wendy Warren, a Daily News editor, put it this way:

"This is something that's pretty much life or death to everyone in this room."

(photo of Karl Martino by Albert Yee)

Posted 03/25/2006 08:34:41 PM

I'm curious - at this "unconference", was there anyone representing the very readers the Daily News and the Inky has been losing over the last decade - moderate and conservative suburbanites? Sounds more like the unconference was more of an echo chamber.

Posted 03/25/2006 08:58:47 PM

What would you have said?

Posted 03/25/2006 09:21:55 PM

db_cooper, It's not like they weren't invited to participate... that said -- I'm a moderate suburbanite and I was there.

Jay Rosen
Posted 03/25/2006 10:06:43 PM

Very cool. Congratulations to everyone on pulling it off. And thanks for the timely report.

Posted 03/26/2006 12:53:47 AM

What follows is going to sound nuts, because I'm just trying to think through the problem of how to make a "norg" (I don't like the sound of that word) profitable and relevant: I came in from Buzzmachine, where I read the appraisal of the day there. Your notes seem to be focused on the community/local aspects; it seems like a viable business model that gives people relevant news would emphasize what is local. I dunno what to say. My own experience is that people who can write will almost always be read. I was a devotee of Karen Heller's and Carlin Romano's when I lived in the area. I skimmed most of the other articles, which is fine, but I think what you need is for people to take a really big interest in their own community for these ideas to work. I kinda think one reason why we turn to national news is because we don't want to deal with local issues. I always hated being told by some suburban official in an "information meeting" things like "Well, this is why we're going to let the football team of the high school practice on your front lawn, because they have to win games." I didn't want to deal with that stuff, so I sat home during such meetings and watched Peter Jennings tell me what I already know. How should a community be engaged, then, so that they feel like a part of the news, and that the news is immediately relevant, and that they can make a difference armed with the news? - Actually, when I put it that way, part of the answer is really obvious. Think about all the people who have events covered that love to post on a bulletin board coverage of their event. Does a citizen powered paper mean that a paper has to give some fame to every citizen? Probably. Local issues have to start as local as possible, maybe. And coverage of local organizations helps hugely. The question then is what sort of prominence you want to give these things. A news summary in bullet form with a sentence or two about each article could be a huge help for each section of a paper (or whatever it is a "norg" will produce), as it makes the reader already informed before skimming; an informed reader is probably an engaged reader. - Another part is reporting on policies and practices that work in other localities (which means a reporter, of course, would be taking the initiative in identifying a problem with a community), and perhaps dumping even more resources into an education beat - I know that's being done now, but I consistently underestimate the appetite people have for knowing exactly where their school ranks and why. Even online, the amount written about education isn't as comprehensive as it needs to be. The only thing that gets at the sense of comprehensiveness that might satisfy is the Philosophical Gourmet, a guide to philosophy grad schools run by a very sharp man and a strong panel of people who work in contemporary philosophy. It seems to me what a "norg" might aim for is creating this sort of comprehensive coverage of any given phenomena not through one massive survey, but by making reporters experts, and allowing them, when they feel comfortable, to report everything they've learned. A "special report," thus, would be less about investigative journalism and more about comprehensive knowledge (this has already happened in some ways - the report on Social Security once featured in the Inquirer magazine was like this). I don't know if any of that will help, but those were just my thoughts. All of these suggestions, of course, demand a rich talent pool. There's a lot of writing out there, but those who really know how to write are going to make all these thoughts work.

George Nimeh
Posted 03/26/2006 07:04:38 AM

As I told Jeff Jarvis: It isn't a war. It's a revolution. We had 8-tracks, vinyl and CDs. Now we have MP3s. Most stockbrokers and travel agents are dinosaurs. Rocketboom now has 300K daily viewers and there are 1.2 million blog posts every day. The recent sale of Knight Ridder to McClatchyhe should worry the entire publishing industry, if they weren't already concerned about the state of their declining business. It has been a horrible year for the newspaper business, in particular, but should that come as a surprise to anyone? Even Rupert Murdoch seems to know better these days. ~ Declining circulation (-3%) ~ Declining revenue (circ. revenue -7% at the Tribune) ~ Profit margins down 1.5%, to just below 20% ~ Classified ad revenue is drying up ~ Worsening mix of circulation to advertising revenue ~ Falling stock prices (-20% on Wall Street) ~ Mature industry ~ Job losses ~ No archival value of product ~ And you still get ink all over your hands when you read 'em The sad thing for many publishers and other dinosaurs, is that this story is only news to them. It is always nice to see ASC encouraging conversation and a good debate. I was a graduate fellow there, and the school has always been good about that. If you’re at UPenn, however, I think the best thinking on the issue is coming out of Wharton. Check out the K@W article, "Are Newspapers Yesterday’s News?"

Posted 03/26/2006 10:40:48 AM

So, so sorry I couldn't be there. It sounds like just the kind of discussion I hoped for when the idea of such a conference was floated. I hope to "be there" through the wiki and the ongoing listserv. Thanks to all who participated.

Citizen Mom
Posted 03/26/2006 07:46:59 PM

Sounds like it was a useful day! Thanks for the report, Dan.

Posted 03/27/2006 08:07:27 AM

Daniel there is not an "assault on the news right now." Your product is not relevant anymore so people go elsewhere. The narrow band of opinion - pro-interventionst neo-conservatism to pro-interventionist Democratic capitalism just leaves a lot of people cold. Some of us don't care about the opinions of moderate Republicans and "mainstream Democrats" - we'd like someone who makes America a better place for our families and children. Nobody, not one person writes for me in the Philadelphia Inquirer, or the NYT, or WaPo.

Susie from Philly
Posted 03/27/2006 12:32:48 PM

Dan, nice piece.

Robb Montgomery - CEO
Posted 03/30/2006 10:49:38 AM

Hey there - Interesting discussions you are having here. I'm curious - would you consider a site like Visual Editors a norg? It started out two years ago as a peer-to-peer educational community for student and professional journalists. But it has evolved to include most of your norg definitions. Just curious if it can serve as a model for your studies. Whiteboard definitions: Continuous; 24/7 hour Credible Risky. Composed of risk-takers. Stretching the limits of technology, content and money. Willing to embrace and seek failure. Willing to see the union as a partner. Interactive. Gives voice to the readers. Realizes that journalism is not always a story. It might be a database. Multiplatform, including a free print edition. Multimedia; offering different platorms for different audiences. Not a one-way street. Not print into multimedia—both ways Ethical Transparent. Allows reporters to express what they think and feel. A watchdog of the eternal spin machine. Please, of state government. Committed to freedom of information. Financially viable And generous with the money it makes. Supports the acts of journalism. PERSONAL. Facilitates actual human interaction. Distributed widely – transit Devoted to Media literacy – not how to use the media, how to BE the media. Should empower its users to be citizens Has a voice. Have a personality. Enables the community to inform each other. May offer layers of journalism: Old-school, trained journalism; community journalism Uses a new metric for measuring success. Should enjoy first-amendment protection

Tom G
Posted 04/01/2006 07:13:38 AM

Here's something I've never said before: I agree with Atrios.

Jim LaVelle
Posted 04/02/2006 05:37:44 AM

I am a great fan of The Philadelphia Inquirer. I appreciate the integrity, depth, and breadth of its coverage. That said, I don't read the paper any more. I go to everyday. I am surrounded by computers all day and evening and I don't have to deal with the litter that results from the newspaper. As soon as I would get the paper I would shed the sections I don't read. Of course, others would keep those sections and shed the ones I would read. No mess, no fuss with the online paper. I greatly fear if the paper goes away because, for the most part, newspapers are the entities that actually go out and do the original reporting that the blogs comment on and link to. Very few sites do their own reporting. Their forte is commentary. I love you, Inky!

ping: US: Philidelphia "uconference norg"- a new organization meets -->
Posted 03/30/2006 05:27:30 AM

Norg: The Unconference, held at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, drew a small crowd but confronted major issues. Debating whether bloggers and mainstream media share a concern for the future of news, the c...

ping: The Un-Conference: Putting Norgs into Context -->
Posted 03/25/2006 10:22:50 PM

Earlier today at Penn's Annenberg School, about forty assorted minds from often divergent worlds, ranging from the upper management of traditional news organizations to the trenches of independent media, from seasoned journalists to young news consumer...

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