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Originally published Monday, January 4, 2010 at 4:36 PM

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Guest columnist

Shaping the future of journalism — for democracy's sake

Journalism That Matters will hold a conference in Seattle beginning Thursday where citizens are encouraged to answer the following question: "What's possible when journalists and the public come together for genuine dialogue about the news and information needs of a healthy community?"

Special to The Times

You're invited

"RE-IMAGINING NEWS & Community in the Pacific Northwest," Thursday-Sunday, Cascade Room, Haggett Hall, University of Washington. Preregistration required. See www.journalismthatmatters.org for details.

JOURNALISM today is in a state of ... well, you pick the best word: Chaos? Transition? Decline? Reinvention? Fragmentation? Invigoration? Maybe all of the above.

But the news media are still the lifeblood of democracy. Trustworthy news and information are more vital than ever. Most people agree that we still need accountability journalism. However, we also need more journalism accountability.

Journalists, who always thought they were God's gift to democracy, are now finally realizing that democracy is actually God's gift to them. And they're inviting the public to help chart the future course of journalism:

The public is invited to attend a Journalism That Matters (JTM) conference, "Re-Imagining News and Community in the Pacific Northwest," which will run Thursday through Sunday at the University of Washington. The first JTM gathering here, this conference really is different — an "un-conference." There's no keynote speaker, no panels of experts, and no preset agenda. Instead, the agenda will be written by those who show up.

The catalytic question: "What's possible when journalists and the public come together for genuine dialogue about the news and information needs of a healthy community?"

Noting another conference on the future of journalism, some may say: "Geez, won't those self-obsessed, ink-stained wretches from the press ever stop contemplating their navels and bemoaning their woes? What a bunch of whiners."

Sure, about 40,000 journalists have lost their jobs nationwide. "Well, boo-hoo-hoo and welcome to the club," reply workers in other hard-hit professions.

But wait a minute. Where are we going to get our news and information? Newspapers are struggling; broadcast ratings are down; the blogosphere is a zoo. We still need to know what's going on, don't we? Opinions are everywhere, but where can we find good, solid, factual reporting? Who can we trust?

This event's goal is to get citizens and journalists together to help define "the new news ecology." No more "we know the truth and we're here to impart it to you" from arrogant media types. "We're All Journalists Now," as Scott Gant's savvy 2007 book put it.

Citizens and journalists, academics and activists, students and teachers, bloggers and tweeters, digital entrepreneurs and civic do-gooders will shape the future of the new news ecosystem in this region.

JTM is sponsored by some pretty heavy hitters: Microsoft, the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, and the UW's Department of Communication and Master of Communication in Digital Media (MCDM) program. The Washington News Council is a co-sponsor, along with the Asian American Journalists Association, CityClub, the Media Giraffe Project, Northwest Public Radio, the Northwest Science Writers Association and Reclaim the Media.

At JTM gatherings, any participants may call breakout sessions on any topic they want. It works remarkably well. Past events (I've been to two) have produced yeasty dialogue, great brainstorming and some new media startups.

The questions posed are profound: How can the press and the public help each other? How can journalistic ethics, values and standards best be maintained? How can transparency, accountability and openness increase public trust and media credibility? How do we activate new forms of civic engagement and constructive communication?

We all have skin in this game. Journalists: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

John Hamer is executive director of the Washington News Council (www.wa-newscouncil.org), a forum for media accuracy and accountability.

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