The last week has been filled with a lot of thinking and conversations. It started last Thursday when I headed up to the University of Tennessee for the founders’ meeting of the Intercollegiate Online News Network.

I wasn’t sure what ICONN was, or what it would become, and, to be honest, I’m still not. But we talked a lot about online journalism, we practiced some micro-blogging via Twitter and we agreed that building a coalition of the willing, so to speak, was what we needed. Where it goes from there, I’m just not sure. But it’s going to be cool.

After two days on the road, and three days in class, it was back in the truck for a trip to see friends at the Greenville (S.C.) News. I met Chris Weston, the managing editor there, a bit more than a year ago. We partnered his staff and my last Maymester class for a project looking at water across the Georgia-South Carolina border, which generated a strong response from his readers and a lot of learning in my students. It was a great fit, and part of this trip was to plan another project.

I also took along Carolyn Crist, editor in chief of the Red and Black, Ed Morales, the editorial advisor at the paper, and Joe Dennis, a Ph.D. student and teacher here. The plan was to spread them through the newsroom for part of the afternoon to watch how the Gannett “digital desk” works. While they got a little of that, they got more of something I hope was useful – a frank discussion of where journalism is in 2009. We talked about Gannett’s mandatory furloughs, online readership, specialty publications and even a good dose of values.

And it was there that I realized I had become the outsider. I had lost touch with my journalistic roots, I didn’t get it.

The conversation had turned to page views online and how they were doing large photo galleries that generated a lot of traffic. During football season, the staff were shooting the cheerleaders, fans and bands as much as the game then posting dozens of photos online. The local paper calls this, “Spotted.”

And I hate it.

It feels like pandering. It’s eye candy. And their staff felt it, too, saying this wasn’t why they became a journalist.

The conversation wound around a few times, moving from the idea that this gets done to generate the traffic to bring in the ad revenue to fund the “real” journalism and then, interestingly, to the idea that maybe the football game isn’t the story, that the social aspect is. 

And that, to be honest, stopped me for a few moments. One of the editors mentioned having season tickets for the local minor league baseball team, yet he couldn’t tell you what their record was last season – just that he enjoyed the games.

Canon G10, 11 mm, ISO 125, 1/125, f/5.6

Canon G10, 11 mm, ISO 125, 1/125, f/5.6

I’m not sold on it. Yet. It still feels like handing out candy to a lot of people when a few really need a good meal. I wonder if it cheapens the overall product, does it devalue all the other work. And whether it will, as hoped, draw people to other stories once they’re on the site. 

I feel a bit like the kid in this photo from downtown Greenville – inside my ivory tower, looking down on the people telling stories. A little lost, a little hesitant, with a bit of attitude. And turning away from the others inside.