Went to the second day of the AAN (Association of Alternative Newsweeklies) conference this afternoon, mostly to hear the "Covering Elections" panel. Okay, the title wasn't a dazzler, but the panel was: Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post (and a million chat shows); Matt Taibbi, whose coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign got me reading Rolling Stone again for the first time in years; and Jane Hamsher, Hollywood muckamuck turned muckraker on her blog Firedoglake. (The moderator was Mark Zusman, editor-in-chief of Willamette Week, which had kindly provided the credentials.)
At a time when blogs are threatening to eat the alt-weeklies' lunch and give them a wedgie to boot (Hamsher claimed, for instance, that her site got 200,000 visitors a day during the Scooter Libby trial), I would've thought the room would be packed: how did these people spin electrons into gold? And how do they make money at it? Really surprising to see a smallish ballroom only 3/4 filled for the event.
And Huffington and Taibbi were fantastic -- funny, self-deprecating, smart. Describing what her blog is all about, Huffington got the crowd laughing when she said "We don't make it up. It's real news. We're not Fox."
One thing all three agreed on: It's not just the electoral process that's broken; it's the way elections are covered that's equally screwed-up. "A campaign doesn't reflect real issues," Taibbi said. "It's a fraud, a reality show. The media will invent some 'deficiency' in a candidate, and then the candidate will spend all his time trying to correct that perceived deficiency." Huffington: "Looking at politics from a left/right lens is obsolete...and it has been a disastrous way of looking at American politics." Yes and yes.
But what to do about it?
So instead of one well-placed reporter trailing John Edwards wherever he goes (which is one way of doing it) some 40 or 50 differently-placed people tracking different parts of the Edwards campaign, all with peculiar beats and personal blogs linked together by virtue of having a common editor and a page through which the best and most original stuff filters out to the greater readership of the Web, especially via the Huffington Post.
I have no idea if it'll work (and that's a horrible sentence, Jay Rosen!), but I'm glad to see somebody trying something besides standard pool reportage, or Chris Matthews gabbling for an hour with a panel of self-styled "experts." Anything to break the grip of what Taibbi correctly called the "reality show."
What does all this mean for alt-newsweeklies, which are notoriously short-staffed? Reality show -- hell, they're operating on public access.
I don't know; they don't have the deep pockets of an MSM outlet like The Washington Post, nor do they have an army of worker ants like the one Huffington and Rosen are assembling. I think their best bet is to keep a laser focus on the local side of things, and, if there are talented bloggers in their towns, tap into their knowledge and enthusiasm. (But, for God's sake: pay them.)
I also went to a panel yesterday that left me depressed about the future of alt-weeklies, and community-based print journalism, as a whole.
It was, ostensibly, a discussion of food writing, featuring the estimable Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly, who is the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize in the field. But on the panel were three representatives from three different newsweeklies, all from various areas of the country...and listening to them, I felt like they were even less prepared than the daily papers are for the (swiftly approaching) circulation and financial meteors that are going to obliterate the way they do business. (Not that the daily papers know what to do about it, of course, other than to fire the people who do the work, so they can wave marginally improved quarterly reports at their stockholders.)
But other than Gold's contributions...man, that was depressing. More on that panel later this weekend.