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Too Close to the Sun?

Portland Mulls Nonprofit Media Startup

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ABOUT 130 JOURNALISTS, bloggers, politicians, and other hangers-on gathered at the University of Oregon's White Stag Building on Saturday, November 21, for an all-day conference called "We Make the Media," organized by Willamette Week's original 1974 founder, Ron Buel. The theme: establishing a non-profit journalism entity in Portland.

But the conference, co-sponsored by OPB and the City Club of Portland, got off to a rocky start when Steven A. Smith, former editor of Spokane, Washington's Spokesman-Review, delivered his opening remarks. "Some of you here today may be interested in or already committed to harnessing the new media to advocate for a cause, to opine on issues of the day," he said. "To empower and inform people with like ideas and similar interests... to open the most intimate details of your life through a blog or a Facebook page or a tweet."

Yes! And....

"I wish you well," said Smith, who is hotly rumored to be in contention to replace Oregonian Editor Sandy Rowe in 2010. "But I am here today to make the case for journalism."

With that, Smith opened a divide between those in the room who thought "journalism" was entirely distinct from an active engagement in digital forums, and those "digital ranters" in his words, who seemed ready to use Twitter to show Smith that he doesn't get to control or set the parameters of the discussion about journalism anymore.

"The attitude of some of the core organizers was that technology, like the printing press, is simply a method to deliver the news," wrote one conference organizer, Abraham Hyatt, on his blog on Monday, November 23. "Wrong. Technology is journalism... the cavernous gap between those two mindsets created an us vs. them mentality that drove some of the Twitter crowd into a frenzy."

"It's a pretty white room," said former State Representative Jo Ann Bowman, commenting on Smith's remarks on Saturday. "And you notice how lofty he paints journalism to be—standing up for the little guy, when really, it has always been about standing up for their advertisers."

One idea proposed for the new model of journalism was to "raft together" successful local blogs like Bikeportland.org and Portland Food and Drink, and fund them with nonprofit money. But Bikeportland Editor and Publisher Jonathan Maus, reached via Twitter during the conference for his thoughts, quickly pooh-poohed it, saying he's already making money.

"Why would I conglomerate?" he tweeted. "1) We're doing fine as is and 2) it would dilute our product."

"If it can't sell itself in the market, we have to improve the product," he added, in a separate tweet. "If the future of journalism has to rely on foundations and donations... it's not sustainable."

By the end of the day, the conference audience had dwindled to 60 frustrated participants. The remaining attendees voted to develop a proposal for a nonprofit organization devoted to investigative reporting; to promote a "news incubator"; to "create a new entity to fill the vacuum for investigative, analytical community news in the Portland metro area"; and to start a new "public records disseminator" with a $300,000 budget.

By press time, there were still few ideas about where any of the donations might come from, but the conference has started a series of Google groups to further the discussion, and its Twitter hashtag, "#wmtm" has generated over 1,500 tweets.

Smith, in the meantime, remains unemployed, having quit the Spokesman-Review in 2008 after refusing to sign off on another round of job cuts. He now rants, digitally, at his ironically titled WordPress blog: stillanewspaperman.com.

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