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Local journalists address the state of Boston media

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Speaking at the National Conference for Media Reform last weekend, a panel of local journalists addressed the state of Boston media. The group tackled tough topics like the Globe’s recent decision to build a pay wall around its online news, the possible defunding of NPR, WGBH’s switch away from classical music, the role of ethnic media in the city and the sustainability of journalism today.

Featured in the panel were Callie Crossley of WGBH; Marcela Garcia, editor of El Planeta; Caleb Solomon, managing editor of the Boston Globe; Charles Kravetz, general manager of WBUR; Bill Forry, managing editor of the community newspaper group Reporter Newspapers; and Carly Cariolli, editor of the Boston Phoenix.

Solomon opened the talk by shedding light on the Globe’s decision to move most of its online news behind a pay wall. The paper’s all-encompassing Boston.com site, he explained, will be split into two sites this summer — one strictly for news, and another for everything else, including community information, sports, arts and entertainment and select news headlines. Readers who wish to access the full-length stories will have to pay a subscription fee.

“If it works, both audiences will grow,” Solomon speculated.

But several panelists disagreed with Solomon’s optimism. Cariolli questioned the Globe’s strategy to “replace the high-quality journalism with a bunch of free stuff” on Boston.com, and its assumption that readers will suddenly turn into paid subscribers.

“The worry that I would have … is that the switcheroo that is happening there is almost like a bait and switch,” Cariolli disputed. “If it fails, isn’t it going to hurt the revenue for paid high-end journalism at the Globe?”

Solomon responded that marketing research backs the paper’s strategy, but admitted that he frequently loses sleep over the decision.

On another topic, WBUR’s Kravetz went on to discuss the possibility of defunding NPR at a national level. The Republican-backed proposal, which passed in the House of Representatives last month, would strip the public radio station of federal funds. WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station, would consequently be affected.

But there’s a “reasonable chance that nothing will happen,” Kravetz said, explaining that President Barack Obama said on the record that he wouldn’t allow a complete cut. Instead, the government may give the organization “a haircut, but not chop off our heads,” he said.

WBUR only receives 6 percent of its total budget from federal funds, Kravetz continued, so the station “could cope” with the proposed defunding. However, smaller NPR stations around the country would be harder hit, which could in turn hurt WBUR since many of them purchase its content.

The conversation then turned to what Kravetz sees as a local threat to WBUR — WGBH. Crossley, host of her own program on WGBH, described the recent changes to her radio station. In the winter of 2009, WGBH switched from a mix of classical music and national radio to more talk radio, and eventually moved the classical music programming to a different station.

After these adjustments, which Crossley admitted upset the classical music listeners, she was brought on to host her own show — part of a move to add more local programming to WGBH. Crossley stressed that her show is “hyper-local” and features a true “variety of voices” in Boston.

But Kravetz insisted many considered it a “very aggressive and perhaps destructive move” to take on a programming format that WBUR pioneered. Public radio is a “zero sum game,” he explained, so if WGBH’s numbers went up, it would come out of WBUR’s audience.

Crossley disagreed, countering that there is a growing interest in what’s happening locally. “We increased the pie itself, we didn’t take from the pie,” she said. “I think that the products are much stronger today than they would have been before WGBH made the switch.”

However, Kravetz cited the ratings — as WGBH’s went up, WBUR’s went down. “Can a marketplace this size support two public radio stations that are basically competing head to head?” he posed. “That’s still up in the air, what the result will be.”

Adding to their conversation, Garcia of El Planeta raised the issue of minority audiences. “The face of Massachusetts and Boston is changing. What Charlie is saying about the pie being a zero-sum game — it really isn’t,” Garcia said. “If you look at your audience, you have to go beyond what your regular listeners have been. Just look at the Census numbers.” Recent immigrants are making the state’s population grow, she said, but Boston’s media does not cover the stories of these people.

Solomon firmly disagreed. “We do it pretty darn well,” he said, citing the Globe’s full-time immigration reporter and its “Your Town” sites.

“It’s not so much about the capacity to cover these communities — the Globe isn’t an ethnic paper,” Forry added. Forry is the managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter, the Boston Haitian Reporter and the Boston Irish Reporter.

“The Your Town sites, as terrific as they are, are relatively new, they’re going through some growing pains, I think there’s a lot of promise there,” Forry continued. “When Dorchester popped on the scene with the Globe, I was pleased about it … It’s also better for the community to have more reporters flooding the zone.”

Crossley added, the Globe’s immigration reporter is “great, but half the time I’ve discussed those stories before she gets them, and that’s because these people [in the ethnic press] are talking about them first.”

“I take your point fully,” Solomon conceded. Later, he mentioned that the diversity of his newsroom exceeds that of the city.

But the one topic all the panelists agreed upon was the impact of the economic recession on local news. Television, for example, “has turned into, in my opinion, pretty much a headline service, police blotter news to a large degree, tabloid sensibility,” Kravetz said. “And it’s very disappointing to me.”

This year’s National Conference for Media Reform, presented by Free Press, was held at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston.