Local journalists address the state of Boston media

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/12/2011, 7:09 p.m.

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.