As part of a national celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, California Humanities is convening a series of discussion forums throughout the state through the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative. The third in the series features a conversation on Journalism and Democracy in California at San Jose State University. For more info on this forum and the series, please click HERE.


The Challenges Facing Journalism Today
By Frances Dinkelspiel, co-founder of the local news site, Berkeleyside, and author

The last two weeks of April were topsy-turvy ones for journalism and reflected how the news industry is both thriving and flailing.

The good news: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced. Most of the winning entries came from traditional newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. But Pro Publica, an online-only website, won a Pulitzer for a story about the hunt for a serial rapist. It was the non-profit’s third Pulitzer in its nine years of operation. In that same time frame, another website, Buzz Feed, famous for its “Ten Best” lists, got about three billion page views, far outpacing visitors to the sites run by more traditional journalism outlets.

The bad news: On April 22, the Bay Area News Group, which owns several newspapers around San Francisco, announced it was letting go of most of its copywriters. “Staff stories that go inside sections will not be copy-edited,” Bert Robinson, the managing editor for content, told the staff in an email. “Proofreading will be reduced.” The news followed the exit of 16 of BANG’s most seasoned reporters from the Mercury News, just the latest downsizing of a local newspaper. There was also another notable escape. A reporter from the popular Business website quit because she couldn’t keep up with the grueling pace expected of her: five stories a day with one million page views a month.

Charles Dickens has a line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I am breaking the journalism rule never to use a cliché, but given these wild swings, that sentence is apt. There is room for incredible optimism about the state of journalism as more outlets provide quality reporting and use social media to spread those stories far. The reverse is also true: newspapers are still struggling to figure out how to survive financially and are continuing to cut staff. Ad blockers are more popular than ever, reducing a significant funding stream. Much of this new journalism is “clickbait” reporting, creating listicles to increase web traffic. Many reporters are exhausted.

If the funding for journalism isn’t figured out soon, it could have major implications for our society. Will the city councils and school boards of most small cities go uncovered? Will that prompt politicians to take advantage of the lack of scrutiny? Who will write about the common person who is getting messed over by powers stronger than him or her?

These are some of the questions that will be discussed June 16 in San Jose. The discussion, featuring two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Héctor Tobar and Rob Kuznia, and investigative journalist Mark Arax and myself, co-founder of the local news site, Berkeleyside, will examine the changing face of news and its implications for a “just” America. All four of the panelists have worked for traditional newspapers at one point in our careers but have turned to book writing, non-profit work, and entrepreneurial freelancing as the business changed around us.

Be warned: There are no easy answers to the challenges facing journalism. But by answering some questions like, how to keep covering issues and people that are all too easily ignored, how to maintain a multiplicity of news sources, and how to look for models that might ensure journalism survives, some new ideas may emerge.

This forum is free and open to the public. For registration information and more information on the series, please click HERE.