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Dean Johnson reviews NOV Hot Topics

HOT TOPICS, 11/11/2020

As a journalist, I was always most interested in two of the Pulitzer Prizes -- public service and local reporting – because they pointed toward the gist of journalism and even smallish papers could be awarded (i.e., the Bristol, Va., Herald Courier in 2010 and the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in 2015).

That’s my segue into Wednesday’s League of Women Voters Orange County Hot Topics , “How the Loss of Local Journalism Impacts Democracy.”

According to the New York Times, one in five local papers has closed in the past 15 years – or, in short, there goes your local government watchdog. And don’t think politicians aren’t taking note. Mary Ellen Klas, chief of the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau, said that the capital press corps has, for example, had difficulty accessing covid-19 facts and figures. “They [government officials] want to manage the news,” she said, “so there are so many unanswered questions and the public suffers with lack of information.” She added that the Herald had to sue to get the records they wanted.

Klas, the other two panelists (Rick Brunson and Susan D’Astoli) and moderator Rick Edmonds (media business analyst at the Poynter Institute in St. Pete) all agreed that, in future, there will be a need for further collaboration among print, broadcast and digital media in order to maintain watchdog status. The Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, long-time rivals, married their Tallahassee bureaus several years ago to share information and broaden coverage. The Times also partners with PolitiFact, the Web site that tries to keep politicians and others honest by fact-checking for accuracy.

As news director of Spectrum News, D’Astoli agreed that collaboration among news outlets will be essential, and she had a new take on increasing audience engagement. Spectrum staffers take pen and paper and do listening tours in neighborhoods around Central Florida, particularly in areas that are underserved. “We’ve found that people are proud of their histories and they are amenable to change.”

Brunson, a former Sentinel editor and now a journalism teacher at UCF, offered a view of the future as seen through the classroom. He said media classes are full at UCF, and “in 2020, we are still turning students away.” He sees a more diverse classroom these days and said his most popular class covers “mobile journalism,” forecasting a day when even more stories are generated through mobile devices – reporting, writing, photography, video. The downside, he said, is high rates of attrition. Some of the students graduate and don’t pursue journalism careers because “they see how hard the business is with so many platforms now.”

Among the future challenges, panelists said, will be how we’re going to pay for our journalism; how we’re going to diversify workplaces and news coverage; and how we’re going to give consumers what they want and need.