Friday, December 16, 2005

Freelancers, Even Infusions By Google Or Yahoo, May Help Keep Newspapers Alive

John Carroll, the former editor of the L.A. Times, has signed up for research and a major address under the auspices of the Kennedy School at Harvard on the future of newspapers. He says the focus will be on finding ways to keep them going, possibly by developing more revenue streams on line. "My topic is an urgent one, nothing less than the fate of journalism," Carroll stated.

Another trend, as explored in an Aug. 14 article on the New York Times Op-Ed page by the paper's public editor, Byron Calame, is the use of more freelancers and other outside writers to supplement regular staffs.

Calame found that as the NYT has added special new sections, such as Thursday Style, or Escapes, it has been using more and more outside writers, illustrators, etc., and he was concerned that these people be admonished more definitely to follow the newspaper's ethics rules, to avoid conflicts of interests.

Calame cited such problems the New York Times had encountered as protestors writing articles about protests they had joined. It is against Times rules for reporters to write about events in which they participated, for obvious reasons. He also found that while the NYT has been passing out copies of its ethics rules to freelancers, they have not always been reading them and editors have not always been diligent about enforcing them.

In short, Calame was concerned that in bringing in outside contributors, the NYT's standards are being compromised.

At the same time, he recognized the advantages.

"The absence of employee benefits for outside contributors makes them financially attractive compared with full-time staffers," Calame observed. "That's why freelancers can be an important consideration when any newspaper, not just The Times, seeks to innovate or expand amid increased financial constraints."

So, it's clear we have to recognize that there is also opportunity here to make papers better, more comprehensive, than they are now. In bringing in outsiders. papers are finding more expertise, are making themselves more comprehensive.

It has certainly occurred to me that as such firms as Google and Yahoo grow by leaps and bounds on the Internet, there are opportunities that should not be lost to find a synergy between newspapers and these elaborate search firms.

Would it be feasible, for instance, for Yahoo, which is based in the Los Angeles area, or Google, which is based in the Bay Area, to buy the L.A. Times and then, either, inject their own staff work onto the pages of the LAT, or use the Times' foreign and national bureaus to supplement their own offerings? Certainly, this would be a more desirable situation than the LAT finds itself in presently with the lackluster Tribune owners constantly cutting the paper back.

Already, years ago, the development of Op Ed pages was recognized as a way of bringing in outside expertise, or allowing former or retired staffers to continue to make contributions to a newspaper's content.

Just today, for example, the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page offers a thought-provoking article by former editorial page staff member Jack Miles on developments in Turkey whereby that Neareastern nation is beginning to come to grips with the Armenian genocide and better relations with the Kurds.

The problems with ethics and conflicts raised by Calame are real, no question about it, but the opportunities he sees for broadening newspaper offerings must not be neglected, either.

In fact, a silver lining of recent Times layoffs is that in some cases, the paper has raised the possibility of using articles by former personnel. It's my understanding, for example, that it was suggested by LAT editorial pages editor Andres Martinez, to Bill Stall, a Putlizer Prize winner, that Stall might sign a contract to provide 15 articles on California issues to the Op Ed pages.

I feel confident that in his lectures, Carroll will flesh out such ideas and maintain the helpful attitude that newspapers aren't dead yet.

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