Journalists and Community Members Come Together to Discuss the Future of Media

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The panel at Friday's Express Sessions event on the role of community journalism. Michael Heller photo

Community members and journalists had a chance to come together on Friday in a forum allowing them to achieve a greater understanding of each other’s points of view on a wide range of issues, from the speed and accuracy of breaking news and the issue of fake news to the kind of content readers want and the viability of the media industry as a whole.

During an Express Sessions panel discussion on “The Role of Community Journalism in a World of Modern Media,” hosted by The Sag Harbor Express at the American Hotel, it became clear to Kathryn G.  Menu, editor and co-publisher of The Express, that the audience understood the challenges journalists face and appeared supportive of the mission and work the newspapers are doing.

Sag Harbor Express editor and co-publisher Kathryn Menu.

“They know we are taking this seriously, they know we are important and that we work to protect the communities we serve,” Ms. Menu, one of the Express Sessions panelists, said on Tuesday. “They also know we are not perfect at this and that we welcome constructive conversations for how we can get better at the work we do. … But our community wants us to succeed and as such they demand more and more from us knowing that is what it will take to keep community journalism alive and understanding that is critical.”

Ms. Menu was joined on the panel by Jim Rutenberg, the media columnist for The New York Times; Michelle Rea, the executive director of the New York Press Association (NYPA), which represents 721 newspapers throughout the state; Vera Chinese, Newsday’s East End beat reporter; Andrew Olsen, the publisher of the Times Review Media Group on the North Fork; and Joseph Shaw, editor of the Press News Group, which includes The East Hampton Press and The Southampton Press.

The Future of Community News

Ms. Rea told the crowd that NYPA has engaged a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to conduct a national survey on the relevance of newspapers, the results of which she anticipates will be released in April. But she did share one of its conclusions — that “community newspapers were always the glue that held the communities together.”

New York Press Association chief executive officer Michelle Rea.

“Where there were solid communities, there were good newspapers supporting them,” Ms. Rea said. “When those communities lost their newspapers, in many ways the government ran amok when there was nobody watching them or talking about what was going on. It’s more clear than ever that community newspapers need to survive.”

Earlier in the discussion, however, Mr. Rutenberg painted a somewhat dark picture. He cited examples of technology firms and social media companies that are propping up the very industry that, he said, they have helped knock down — for example, Facebook, Google and Craigslist have made donations to organizations such as Report for America that support journalists in underserved communities.

But, Mr. Rutenberg said, it’s like “they’re giving you some spackle to patch up your wall while they’re taking out your foundation.”

VIDEO: Watch the full panel discussion here

Mr. Shaw said he believes a lot of the struggles the national news media is experiencing is “filtering down now to our level and we’re feeling it.” He compared the newspaper experience to that of independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores.

“There was a time not long ago when people thought the indie bookstores were going to be gone,” he said, but instead, many are thriving. “It’s because they do something nobody else does — the delivery of what you need locally and that local touch. It works for us in the same way. The impetus is on us to raise our game. We have to bring essential information to people.”

Newsday reporter Vera Chinese.

Asked her opinion on what kind of information is resonating with people these days, Ms. Chinese — who worked for Mr. Olsen’s company before going to work for Newsday— said “ultimately people want to learn something.”

“They want to see stories about people that they know, they want to learn things that impact their life … things that are going to change their day,” she said.

She cited a few simple examples: weather and food stories, traffic and parking issues, a story about “a proposal for a big tower in your neighborhood that you’re going to have to look at every day.”

“The industry might be changing, but the role newspapers play and the things they come to us for, not as much,” Ms. Chinese said. “That’s true of daily and weekly newspapers.

What’s on People’s Minds?

The Express publisher emeritus Bryan Boyhan, who moderated a question-and-answer session with the audience, told the crowd that “the questions you ask and observations you make are very important to us.”

“You are our future,” Mr. Boyhan said. “Our future is in your hands.”

Times Review Media Group publisher Andrew Olsen.

Elizabeth Laytin, a freelance writer who lives in the Northwest Woods, told the panel she feels that “every paper seems to be an island.”

“Why can’t I go to one place to find out about everything that’s happening within 15 miles of my house?” she asked.

Mr. Olsen responded by saying online access is where the answer may lie, but said in general, people have deep connections to the various media brands “because the content is so highly localized.”

“We have a saying that we would not cover an earthquake that happened in East Hampton unless it broke your dishes in Mattituck,” he said.

Ms. Menu said the newspapers have actually found ways to work together, using the East End News Project — a collaboration between The Express, the Press News Group and the Times Review Media Group that, so far, has tackled the opioid crisis — as an example.

“We’re probably going to start working together more,” she said. “We see the value there and I think our readers see the value there.”

From the audience, Luke Babcock shared his beliefs that local news is fragmented, that “there’s no sort of one reliable source” for it and that “you’re in a bit of a void until the next Thursday comes along.” The Express, The East Hampton Star, The Southampton Press, The Suffolk Times and others are distributed on Thursdays.

Press News Group executive editor Joseph Shaw.

Mr. Shaw responded by saying “one of the things we aspire to on a daily basis” is “to acknowledge the 24/7 aspect of news and bring that to the local level.” His group’s website, 27east.com, is updated nearly every day.

Ms. Chinese said she feels 27east.com does “a pretty good job” and said the fact that Newsday does not always have daily East End news “may be a fair criticism.”

But Mr. Rutenberg said he would “put in a vote for a slower news cycle.”

“I would love that,” he said. “Maybe we can find a happy medium. We can write it better, we can think about it more.”

Marilyn Montgomery, a Sag Harbor resident, brought up the issue of access to information for people with disabilities. She said she read The Express every week until she developed macular degeneration.

“You talk about the young people going to digital,” she said. “I have to go to digital. I cannot read the newspaper anymore. It’s very important to me that what I can access is easy to read.”

Ms. Menu responded to say The Express would be happy to “make that process easier for you” in some way.

New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg.

Janice Delano of Bridgehampton inquired about the printing costs of newspapers. “I hate to see print getting lost, and I wonder what it costs,” she said.

“One of the things I lay awake thinking about every night is the cost structure of the business,” Mr. Olsen replied.

The panelists agreed support from subscribers is important, but also that of advertisers — who are the key to a newspaper’s financial viability.

People at the event also expressed frustration on the issue of fake news — which some on the panel said is not a major problem on the East End — and the difference between editorial commentary and hard news.

Ms. Chinese said news consumers should be educated about those differences.

“I’ve had people refer to advertising as news stories,” she said. “I think it should start in high school.”

Mr. Rutenberg blamed the shift in part on Twitter.

“My newspaper is at the center of this debate almost weekly,” he said. “Twitter gives reporters an outlet to spout off in ways they can’t and shouldn’t on their stories. It makes it confusing to the reader, but younger readers want to see more personality in the writing.”

Jeff Bragman, an attorney and East Hampton Town councilman, stood up to say he has noticed a shift among the East End media.

“I’ve noticed a switch … in moving away from chronicling meetings to really being news organizations, and coupled with that is a new, stronger stance in editorials to take positions on big issues,” he said. “I love what I’m seeing in the local papers.”

Nancy Greenberg poses a question to the panel during Friday’s Express Sessions event.

East End, Long Island Are Unique

Nowhere else on Long Island can a newspaper reader find at least five print publications and multiple news websites covering one geographical region, Mr. Shaw said.

“I’m not sure people really understand how lucky the East End of Long Island is,” he said. “The newspapers and websites we have out here — every single one of them are among the best in the United States at what they do. You have layers and layers of coverage of local government and things going on in the community that you simply don’t have in comparable communities.”

Indeed, Scott Brinton, the president of the Press Club of Long Island and the executive editor of the Herald Community Newspapers covering 23 hamlets, cities and villages in Nassau County, confirmed in an interview Monday what the East End has in terms of media diversity is a rare occurrence. In his coverage area, for instance, only Glen Cove has more than one print newspaper.

“There used to be quite a bit of competition where there would be two or three newspapers or newspaper groups competing against each other,” Mr. Brinton said. “Now it’s down to one per coverage area essentially.”

He called Long Island’s news culture healthy, without large media “deserts” — areas not served by some form of journalism — that other regions of the country have.

“There is a perception here that somehow the media is dying. It’s anything but,” Mr. Brinton said. “It’s evolving. I know it will be here for many, many years to come.”

ANOTHER VIEW FROM THE ROOM

Journalists in the audience at Friday’s Express Sessions event on the role of local media said they walked away with confirmation that the local news business is thriving but not without challenges.

“There is still a vibrant, independent media on the South Fork, and it comprises people who care passionate about what they do and feel very strongly that it must continue despite the pressures that new technologies have brought,” said Christopher Walsh, a senior writer at The East Hampton Star.

Bridget LeRoy, the managing editor of The Independent, speaks at Friday’s Express Sessions event.

Bridget LeRoy, a 36-year news veteran who is the managing editor of The Independent, said she got confirmation that small-town newspapers “are the essence of democracy.” She also said she feels lucky to work in this region, which supports several different news outlets.

“We are competitive, but we understand how blessed we are to cover this area,” she said. “I feel like we all respect each other and I think we are very, very lucky. … We support each other and that’s very novel.”

Annette Hinkle, a journalist and author who has worked for virtually every East End news outlet, said the local news outlets “seem to be a little more immune to the models that have killed the bigger dailies.”

She also drew another conclusion — “that the whole idea of free content is just a nonstarter anymore.”

“Unfortunately, the way the internet has developed, the world has gotten used to getting everything for free on the backs of the people who need to pay for it,” Ms. Hinkle said. “People are always happy to come in and tell you what you’re not covering, but I think in general people need to know it costs money to send us to cover stories.”

Mr. Walsh concurred with panelists who said the role of local media is paramount to what makes a community whole — even when it’s tough to balance hard-hitting reporting with the relationships journalists must maintain.

“But if you are not angering some people, you’re probably not doing your job, which is not to say that your job is to make people mad, but it’s to shine light on things, sunlight being the best disinfectant,” Mr. Walsh said. “We’ve seen that where there is no independent media, abuse of power follows.”

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