BY FLORENCE SNYDER

The year is 2020, and all that remains of print journalism is the New York Times, USATODAY, and the National Enquirer. Google has been broken up into twelve competing companies. 97.9% of all news websites have installed pay walls. All state and local public records are available on-line…for a fee. Vice President Marco Rubio has inherited the Oval Office from President Sarah Palin, who resigned to resume her career as a journalist.

That’s the way it was in a world conceived by Miami First Amendment lawyer Tom Julin for The Florida Bar’s annual Media Law Conference. The Conference dates back to the 1970s when Wall Street was beginning to see journalism as a cash cow, rather than the watchdog the Founding Fathers intended. In the 1980s, as media companies profit margins climbed past 30%,  hundreds of lawyers, judges and journalists crowded into hotel ballrooms to hear media A-listers opine on the future of journalism. Times and travel budgets being what they are, the 2010 Conference was a far less lavish affair.  At times, the speakers outnumbered the paying audience.

One can only wonder how 20th century Conference speakers like Katharine Graham, Abe Rosenthal and Fred Friendly would have responded as Julin prodded veteran reporters, academics and fellow media lawyers to answer questions which have, for decades, vexed journalism think-tanks in 140 characters or less. Julin lightened the mood with James Cameron-level audio visual references to narcissistic presidential hopefuls and their tango-dancing soulmates. Still, it was a sobering picture he painted of a not-too-distant future where the body politic has the attention span of a goldfish.

Some think that day has already arrived, but Conference-goers found reason to be hopeful that real news and well-reasoned commentary will adapt to the new and much leaner environment.

Some of the 21st century’s best explanatory journalism is happening on Comedy Central; Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have the Peabody awards to prove it. These modern-day Mark Twains provide a national audience the kind of fact-based, impossible-to-ignore editorial voices that Florida used to take for granted.

Howard Troxler and Carl Hiaasen are, thank God, still with us.  But Florida’s increasingly anemic editorial pages are no match for state government’s standing army of flacks and flunkies who pay lip-service to transparency while actively obstructing reporters in pursuit of stories their bosses don’t want told.

It’s always cause for celebration when front-page news slips past the government’s spinmeisters and makes it to the front page, and Conference-goers were spellbound as Gina Smith of the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. described the combination of luck, instinct and shoeleather involved in her pursuit of Gov. Mark Sanford down the “Appalachian Trail” to the Atlanta airport.

To a roomful of reporters who are expected to do impactful investigations while blogging at 20 minute intervals, it was a cheering reminder that one reporter can change the course of history.

A reminder of another kind was delivered by the Miami Herald’s former general counsel Richard Ovelmen. In a moving tribute to his friend and mentor, legendary First Amendment lawyer Dan Paul, who died this year at age 85, Ovelmen recalled how Paul leveraged his bulging Rolodex in the service of all of Florida’s journalists—not just the ones who worked for Knight Newspapers and the New York Times Company in the decades when they could afford Paul’s eye-popping hourly rates.

Under Paul’s direction, Ovelmen recalled, Florida’s media lawyers took up the cause of reporters in places they could barely pronounce.

If a city clerk in Opa Locka withheld public records, or a judge in Palatka threw a reporter out of a courtroom, publishers of mom-and-pop newspapers could count on Paul to declare a constitutional crisis and dispatch an army of lawyers bearing briefs that argued, “News delayed is news denied.”

With 20th century media on life support, displaced journalists are bringing their craft to cyberspace.  The lonely pamphleteer is on-line at places like Broward Bulldog, Health News Florida, and FloridaThinks, looking for a business model that will support the never-ending mission of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

There’s a lot at stake, and The Florida Bar deserves thanks for reminding us that failure is not an option.

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Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at lawyerflo@gmail.com.

Parody photo courtesy of Random Pixels. Tom Julin’s “Journalism and Other Financial Disasters” was presented at The Florida Bar’s Media Law Conference, March 26, 2010.