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BY ED OTTE
Strong content and compelling storytelling are the top priorities in the ever-changing digital age of journalism.

That was the message from a panel of speakers at The Future of News forum March 14 at The Denver Post sponsored by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Rocky Mountain PBS and public radio stations KUNC and KUVO.

“How do we remain vital in this hectic, disruptive media environment, ensure that people will find us and learn that they need us and want us and can’t live without us?” asked Margaret Low Smith, National Public Radio senior vice president for news. “What do we actually do to nurture our relationship with the audience? To offer something extraordinary that they can’t find anywhere else?

“We need to distinguish ourselves at every turn. We must tell stunning stories that make people laugh and cry and nod their heads and expand their minds.”

Smith’s comments were illustrated with audio clips from recent NPR stories about the conflict in Syria, the Newtown shooting and a miner with black lung disease. The reporting focused on how the incidents affect people’s lives, told in their own voices, rather than officials’ statements.

“I think media organizations have sometimes underestimated the intelligence of their audience,” said Laura Frank, executive director of I-News and vice president for news at Rocky Mountain PBS. “The best way to help people recognize quality journalism is to give them quality journalism.”

I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS is a news service that collaborates with Colorado news outlets to deliver high-impact in-depth journalism. Losing Ground, the recent I-News investigative report about racial disparities in Colorado, was used by several newspapers and broadcast stations.

This type of public service journalism, Frank said, produced “a significant reaction from policy makers and the public. A lot of people were shocked by the findings. But a lot of people had a sense that these things were happening and it was as if they had this pent-up urge to talk with each other about them and what could be done.”

The panel also discussed how technology, especially social media, is changing journalism.

“Websites, I won’t say are going away, but they won’t be as primary in the future,” said Gil Asakawa, manager of student media at CU-Boulder and adviser for the student-run news website CUIndependent.com.

“Tablets are more common but this is the future,” he said holding up a cellphone. “There are so many apps and more will become available, ones we can’t imagine. Students at the CUIndependent have learned how to use the apps to get the news out. Sometimes they’re used for silly things but students see the potential for reporting.”

Smith said, “Whatever we produce, and for whatever medium, it needs to be great. In a world with so many media alternatives, the chance to capture people’s attention and to gain their loyalty is fleeting and fragile. We must be imaginative and original.”

The program was taped by Denver’s Channel 8 TV and will air in April.

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