The Future of Journalism

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Eric Newton, Senior Advisor to the President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, discusses the future of journalism.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The digital age has transformed how we access news and information, and raised questions about the future of journalism. Here to give us his take is Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation has a long history of providing financial support to keep people informed and engaged in their communities. It's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Eric Newton: Great to be here.

Ted Simons: Before we get to the future of journalism, what is the state of journalism today?

Eric Newton: Well, the polite thing to say would be mixed. But journalism is going through some of its greatest opportunities, some of its most exciting opportunities, and also some of its worst times. So since this is a news program, I'll give you the worst times first. Since 2008, and in the recent recession, has been a meltdown for media economics. Some of the most important newspaper companies in America have lost tremendous stock value, and there have been cutbacks in journalism across the country. As you know, because the FCC hearings were here, a national study of this was done by Steve Waldman for the FCC, he identified 15,000 local journalism jobs cut and said that there's a crisis in local accountability journalism. But I said there was something good. The good thing is that the same digital age that is causing this creative disruption of traditional media is also providing amazing new outlets and opportunities for all of us, everyone to act journalistically, to share news, to be able to participate in the news stream, and those new opportunities are really lowering the barriers of entry. So it's the best time to start a new kind of news enterprise, it's the best time to be a journalism student, and it's the best time to be a news consumer, because of what you're able to find out there in this vast sea of digital information.

Ted Simons: You mentioned lowering the barriers for entry, but does that also include lowering some other barriers; we see blogs taking over where a lot of accountability journalists, we've talked about this so many times, but you have to have someone to go to those city council meetings, you have to have someone who is going to all the nuts and bolts and everyday stories and a lot of times blogs, and a lot of things we see on the internet and our smart phones, they're not willing to do that. They're cherry picking what newspapers are doing on their own.

Eric Newton: It's true that the decrease in professional journalism is serious, especially on the local level. Not so much the national level. It's an information paradox in a way. You can find out what's going on in Afghanistan easier than you can find out what happened at the local school board. Americans really over the long haul are not going to put up with this. We need healthy flows of news and information for our communities to run. So there are things will emerge to replace what's being lost. Probably not even to replace, but improve what was being lost. Even in the glory days of American journalism, the so-called golden days. Journalists did not really cover every single one of the thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of governmental entities that there were to cover. We covered some of them. So what we need to do going forward is find new tools and new ways to increase the power of professional journalists, and at the same time new models so that both commercial and nonprofit journalism can start to re-grow in the appropriate ways for the new technologies.

Ted Simons: Let's get to that dichotomy, commercial and nonprofit. What is the role of nonprofit journalism in this growing digital age?

Eric Newton: This is nonprofit journalism. We're sitting here in one of the most exciting nonprofit journalism organizations in the world. Public broadcasting, which is "supported by viewers like you", and giving billions of dollars. So it's not like where the BBC, where government collects a fee and the BBC is paid for by that. In this country, people voluntarily give great amounts of money for good, nonprofit journalism. In the digital age, there are new nonprofit forums that are coming out. Web-based, and they have some great advantages over existing public broadcasting because their costs of start-up are much lower. So we're seeing entities like the Texas Tribune in Texas, or the Base Citizen in San Francisco, or Min Post in Minnesota, or The Voice of San Diego in California, very interesting new nonprofit news entities focused, covering states, covering local communities, doing good jobs in creating real audiences and communities of interest in their content. Those are just as sustainable as public broadcasting is. And that's a major new form of journalism with significant audiences numbering in the millions.

Ted Simons: Is there a way, is there a cooperative between public broadcasting, nonprofit journalism, and commercial broadcasting, commercial journalism, if you will, can they work together, will they have to work together?

Eric Newton: They can work together. Some of the early collaboratives have been really just experiments. In Oakland, where I used to edit a newspaper, a newspaper editor named Chauncey Bailey was killed in 2007. The journalists who wanted to react to that knew they had to do two things. They had to finish Chauncy's story, he was killed because of a story he was working on, and then they had to find the killers. And so you had commercial journalists, you had student journalists, you had nonprofit journalists from public broadcasting, you had ethnic press reporters, and they worked together in a group called the Chauncey Bailey Project, they reported, they investigated, they found the culprits, and this summer the mastermind went to jail for life, his accomplice went to jail for life. The district attorney said if it wasn't for these reporters, this eclectic group of reporters working together, this wouldn't have happened, this justice wouldn't have come to this. Now, it's one thing to investigate the murder of a journalist, which we journalists don't like happening anywhere, especially in America, it's another thing to figure out how to do routine day-to-day coverage in those same kind of collaboratives and cooperatives. But it can be done. And there have been a lot of major journalists studying this problem, and there have been new organizations forming that actually do these kinds of public-private-student collaborations. People who used to compete, used to be fierce competitors, cooperating and saying, "Okay, you do the story in the morning, I'll do the story in the evening, he'll do the story tomorrow, we'll all release our various media but we'll work together to do the investigation because together we can get more done."

Ted Simons: Can you get more done and can it be done better without that competition? Because a lot of times news gathering organizations do their best work when they're fighting other news gathering organizations to try to be the first, try to be the best, try to be the number one.

Eric Newton: Competition can be good and competition can be bad. Sometimes competition can cause you to do the news too fast. Sometimes it can cause you to do a story that really is very thin. Other times competition can keep you on your toes, can keep you sharp, can keep you accurate if you make a mistake, the competitor will correct it. Collaboration is the same way. It can be good or bad. Good collaboration really builds on the strengths of each organization and you do -- it's more than the sum of the parts. Bad collaboration makes everybody a little lazier. We're seeing some of the good new ones coming up. There are new sharing arrangements in many states where newspaper on one side of the state share with another side. It's a collaborative idea that started the Associated Press. The Associated Press in the United States, 150 or so years old, the largest news gathering organization in the world, it's a nonprofit. It's a collaborative. We share news with each other. It started because in New York the news used to come from Europe, by ship, and each newspaper had to send a boat out to the ship to get the news quick. Well, they were sending eight, 10, 20 boats. Somebody came up with the idea of let's just send one boat out to the ship, we'll get the news, then that person will come back and tell everybody and we'll just save all this money on all these other boats. That's how the Associated Press started. It's just practical. It's a practical way to solve some news gathering problems. It's not an answer. You might say, why in this era of higher and higher standards for news will we settle for a collaborative? Why wouldn't we want many, many reporters competing? Well, these days you, me, anyone with a computer is a fact checker. And can be part of the mechanism that keeps journalism honest. Now you can reply to stories on web sites, now you can email easily the journalists, now you can do all kinds of things you couldn't do just 10 or 20 years ago, and in many communities that's happening. We're seeing the crowd correcting things. And so there are new levels of fact checking and new levels of correction that are possible in the digital age.

Ted Simons: With that, my last question is, the future of journalism. We've talked about where it's been, where we're bubbling at right now, where is it headed?

Eric Newton: We're at a profoundly new age of communication: the digital age. This is really big. This is as big as Gutenberg and movable type 550 years ago. We are in the very beginning of the digital age. You could say the launch of the worldwide web in 1991 was the beginning. This means that we don't really know where the future is heading. And this is unusual in media for really the first time in American media history where the leaders of a profession weren't really sure what their profession was going to look like five, 10, 15 years ago. The way the media organized itself over hundreds of years, you would have the newspaper here doing print, you would have the television here doing television, radio was over here doing radio, magazines were magazines. Everybody was separated. Separated and separated and separated. Weeklies, specialty magazines, newsletters, everyone had their spot. Now with the digital age, everyone can do everything. Newspaper can do video, the radio station can take photographs, the television station can write stories, and so for the first time the question of what, not just what a good news story is, but what medium is appropriate for that story has been raised. And so it makes things ever more complicated. We're not really sure anymore who a journalist is, it could be somebody working full-time, or it could be somebody who is just on a volunteer basis doing it. We're not really sure anymore what a story is, sure, it's the traditional stories, but also it's things like clickable maps, and databases. We're not really sure what medium is appropriate. Because for some things, it's a handheld device that's the best way to get it to people. For other things it's the television, for other things it's still radio. And we now have a different relationship with the people we used to call the audience, now they're a community and they're interactive and they can help do the news, send the news out, correct the news, complain about the news, and so all of it is quite different. We don't know what the future is going to be, but we know that it's going to be radically different than what's going on now. So journalists need to prepare and all of us need to prepare to change.

Ted Simons: Exciting times. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Eric Newton: Thank you very much.

Eric Newton:Senior Advisor to the President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation;

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