Free Press media reform panel answers the question: "Is journalism dead?"

Journalism is dead: That seems to be the familiar refrain among the public these days.

But last night, a panel of practitioners and free-press advocates at a preview event for the National Conference on Media Reform taking place in Denver next month, begged to differ. In their view, journalism is alive and well, but coming from unlikely places (and funding still looms as the primary problem).

The panel convened for a discussion titled "The Perfect Storm: Democracy in the Age of Big Money and Big Media" in the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus.

Panel members included Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, a media-reform organization; Susan Greene, a reporter for the American Independent News Network; Nancy Watzman, a Denver-based consultant to the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency advocacy organization; and Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Elena Nunez. David Sirota, author and political commentator, moderated the panel. The evening also featured brief remarks from Michael Copps, former commissioner of the Federal Communication Commission and currently a special adviser to the national Common Cause organization.

Aaron opened the event by introducing Copps and lauding his work with the FCC during his eight-year tenure as a commissioner.

"He had the crazy idea that the public airwaves should actually belong to the public," Aaron said.

And indeed, Copps spoke passionately about returning the media to the public, addressing the increasing creation of media monopolies through consolidation and the negative influence of unchecked political spending on journalism.

Copps spent the majority of his time with the FCC focusing on acquisitions and mergers, and his message was simple: Piles of cash have destroyed the ability of journalists, and the media in general, to function in their role as watchdogs.

"We have to figure out a way to put some controls on big money," he said. "We probably have 25,000 to 30,000 reporters walking the street looking for a job rather than walking the beat."

The rest of the panel echoed Copps's sentiments, as the tone of the discussion ranged from outright frustration with the lack of media-outlet diversity in Colorado to a feeling of cautious optimism about the future of journalism in the state and beyond. Sirota pointed to the Denver Post as the main media source in the state. Whatever the Post reports ends up on the radio, he said, and that leads to a dearth of dissenting opinions and comprehensive coverage.

On the other hand, Aaron said, even if Sirota is right, the public needs to respond, and that, in turn, could lead to potential solutions for putting journalists back to work.

Continue for more about "The Perfect Storm: Democracy in the Age of Big Money and Big Media." "When you don't have alternatives, you have to make your own media," he said, referring to blogs and other forms of curation by professional and citizen journalists. "Why don't we have an AmeriCorps program for journalists?"

Susan Greene pointed to the lack of quality investigative journalism as a force behind the changed media landscape, lamenting the rise of "gotcha"-style reporting practices.

"If you're going to do a 'gotcha,' you'd better have some context behind that 'gotcha,' and you'd better talk to the person you're getting," she said. She pointed to Denver's 9News as one of the only outlets practicing quality investigative journalism in the state.

Whatever the issues are that are driving the supposed fall of journalism, the panelists all agreed on one thing: The remedy is funding. Creating a renewed public interest in current events and local political coverage could revitalize the industry for traditional outlets (print, television, radio) and provide resources for some of the new, creative methods surfacing on the Internet.

But that leaves the multi-million-dollar question: Where will that money come from? The panelists had no concrete answers -- just like the rest of the industry -- but a few business approaches were bandied about, such as "freemium" models, where some content is available for free, and a donation or subscription fee that allows access to the rest of the content.

Creative and innovative funding plans are a topic, among many others, that will surely garner extended attention at the upcoming National Conference for Media Reform. And while two hours is a short amount of time for a discussion about revolutionizing a flagging industry, the panel demonstrated just how productive such a discussion can be.

More from our Media archive: "Free Press' Craig Aaron on teaser for National Conference on Media Reform."

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