Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Future (We Hope) of Journalism

John S. Carroll, former editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times, gave the annual Creason Lecture at the University of Kentucky on April 1, 2008. He spoke from notes, from which he adapted the following text.

The author wrote this article based on notes he made for a speech he delivered last month at the University of Kentucky.

It's a pleasure to be here at the University of Kentucky -- and especially to be among people who care enough about journalism to attend this, the annual Creason Lecture. I'm proud to be delivering it.

Tonight we remember Joe Creason, whose death in 1974 left a void in the Commonwealth. At the time Creason was writing his column, the Louisville Courier-Journal was a force in uniting Kentucky, reaching all 120 counties. For the most part, the C-J covered government, politics and other such weighty matters, but Joe Creason saw Kentucky through a different lens. He covered the common people, and through him the common people saw themselves in the pages of the newspaper. For that, among other things, he is remembered with affection.

I'd like to say, also, in these introductory remarks, a kind word about the Bingham family. The Binghams made the Louisville papers a bedrock institution of the state and a pillar of journalism nationally.

By now, nearly all newspapers have gone through the same transition, passing from family owners to corporate owners. At first, when this trend started, it wasn't so bad. It's been said that corporate ownership made bad papers better and good papers worse, which was certainly true of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal, respectively.

Since those days, money has gotten tighter in our business, and the relationship between the corporation and the newspaper has grown less benign. What was an occasional friction between corporate and journalistic values has become a daily collision. Today, in some companies, journalists have come to see the corporate CEO as a spiritual cousin of the repo man who just won't stop banging on the door.

And now we face yet another transition, something even more daunting than the passing of newspapers from local families to corporations. That change is the subject of tonight's Creason Lecture.

How it will all turn out, we don't yet know. But let us hope that whatever form journalism takes in the future, and whatever form the business model takes, that we will have leadership in the spirit of the Binghams – people who see themselves not as mere extractors of money but as stewards of something more important.

Having been a newspaper editor for many years, I'm well aware that every editor is peculiar. Every editor has his or her fixations, which are well known to -- and sometimes ridiculed by -- the staff.

I had my share of fixations, one of which was hucksterism. We live in an age of hucksterism, and quite a bit of it seeps into the writing of journalists. It concerns me to see routine stories presented in language that would be more appropriate in describing, say, the Fall of Rome. Almost reflexively, I delete certain words and replace them with other words that are less dramatic but, to my eye, more precise.

An event described as "historic," for example, is almost always better rendered as "interesting," or perhaps "noteworthy."

In political writing, "firestorms" have become frequent phenomena of late, but the events referred to are usually more accurately described as mere "disagreements" or "criticism."

And a person characterized as "legendary" is almost always, when examined, merely "well known."

I recall a story in one of our most esteemed newspapers that glibly described Karl Rove as the most influential White House aide in American history. Who knows -- it might even be true. But I had a feeling that the reporter, in the forty-five seconds or so he lavished on this particular paragraph, might not have researched every single White House aide in the previous 42 administrations and calibrated his or her influence against that of Karl Rove. Just a hunch.

The resident wit when I was at the Herald-Leader was David Holwerk, a graduate of this university. It was David's self-appointed role to bell the cat – that is to say, to put the editor in his place – when the editing got too heavy handed. "Chief," he would say to me, usually in front of a cluster of smirking staff members, "you've done it again. You have crushed the fragile flower of our creativity under the harsh boot heel of arbitrary and capricious authority."

I mention all this for a purpose: to establish my bona fides as an enemy of overstatement -- and therefore to stake out some credibility, I hope, in saying that the current period in journalism is, in fact, historic. It is epochal.

It is remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented.I'm speaking, of course, of the passage of journalism into the digital age.

Let us go back, now, to the eve of the digital age, specifically the 1980's at the Lexington Herald-Leader.

When I was editor of the Herald-Leader, we made millions and millions and millions of dollars. Each year we made a bundle, and the next year we'd make even more. I wish I could to tell you that this reflects the cleverness of the editor. What it reflected, in truth, was crude pricing power.

Advertisers so desperately needed the Herald-Leader that we could jack up advertising rates almost at will. It was something close to a monopoly – not an illegal monopoly, but an amazingly lucrative near-monopoly.

Most of the loot in those days went to the bottom line, enriching the corporations that by then owned nearly all the papers in the country. But there was also some left over for journalism.

We spent more and more money covering the news. Journalists got hired and salaries went up. At times it took creativity to get all the money spent. The high water mark of the prosperity, as I witnessed it, was early 1991. That was when I left the Herald-Leader to join the Baltimore Sun. At the Sun, I was somewhat surprised to learn that the newsroom softball team had recently returned from a tour . . . of Russia.

Our world has changed since then. Hardly anybody goes to Russia to cover the news anymore, much less to play softball. Times are tight, and our rollicking little monopoly is turning to dust. An economist would say that monopoly is a bad thing and that for a monopoly to crumble is good. In principle I agree, but I sure do miss the easy-money days. We thought they'd go on forever.

Today, the so-called mainstream media are decommissioning journalists every day, and newspaper owners are watching in disbelief as their investments vanish into the abyss. Occasionally an investor or speculator still comes along, figuring to catch newspapers at their low point and ride them back up. Sam Zell is one. So are the last two buyers of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

For them, it's been a chastening experience. No, this is not just another turn of the business cycle.

As was mentioned in the excessively kind introduction, I left theLos Angeles Times in 2005. Soon after, I had the good fortune of spending the year 2006 at Harvard, sponsored by the Knight Foundation.

This gave me an opportunity to interview many people in the newspaper business, trying to figure out what was going on.

I found them even more bewildered and demoralized than I was. A few of them said bravely, "This is an opportunity, let's make the most of it." But in fact they were simply submitting to large forces that they understood only hazily.

To them, the arrival of the digital age was like an invasion by space aliens.The space aliens were attacking from all angles.

They took away readers. They took away advertisers. They ripped apart each day's paper and redistributed it -- piecemeal and free -- to the entire world.

Before the arrival of the space aliens, newspapers made money in two ways. They made money by selling ads to advertisers and by selling news to readers.

The space aliens had a different idea. They said: No longer will you sell news, which they called "content." In the online future, your content will be free.

This was greeted by a few meek protests from those who saw journalistic content as a newspaper's only distinctive product. But soon the free-content decree was the law of the land, and the only remaining way to make money was selling ads.

Selling ads had always been a good business, and the Web offered vastly larger audiences. But it also obliterated our secret ingredient, monopoly pricing.

With the Web came hundreds of thousands of new advertising businesses. In a crowded field, newspapers became just another player. And they were handicapped by high costs. The New York Times spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on journalism. That may be good for readers, but it's a drag on business because the Times' competitors can assemble huge audiences for ads without all that spending.

So, we've lost the content money, and the ad money isn't all that hot. True, it's growing. But it will be years before it can support the kind of journalism that journalists want to produce and that the public expects and needs. And we may never get there at all.

This is what ails the old media today.Now some of you, I know, are students who want to have careers in journalism. And some of you are probably nudging each other and saying, "Hmmm. This year's Creason Lecture isn't exactly turning out as a pep talk.

"Don't leave. It'll get better. It will get better because there is, in addition to what's dying, something being born.At this point, I'll cite a single example.

Over the last several years, as I'm sure you've noticed, the national conversation has changed. Millions of people who previously had been excluded were suddenly allowed to join in. Who ever saw it coming? For those of us who believe in free speech and free press, this is an unexpected gift, a First Amendment miracle, bestowed by the same space aliens that are laying waste to our newspapers.

Before expanding any further on this and other digital-age miracles, let me get a few worries off my chest -- specifically, the following three questions:

Question Number One: Who, in the digital future, will do the reporting?

If journalism has a mainspring, it is the reporter. The reporter performs the elemental task of finding things out. The product of a reporter's labor is news – news that is originally reported and then verified.

News is as crucial to America's democracy as oil is to its economy. Without a robust flow of news, bad things happen. Public discourse withers. Crooks and charlatans get a free ride. Citizens know less and less and become less qualified to govern their nation.

What, then, are the prospects for reporters? Well, here at the dawn of the digital age, the media are divided, like ancient Gaul, into three parts. Let's visit each of the parts and assess their civic value – not in terms of dollars made, but in terms of reporters employed.

First we have the familiar: the old media. Currently, the vast majority of the nation's reporters are on old media payrolls. You may get your news on your Blackberry, you may get it on the Web, you may get it from a talk show. But if you trace any given story to its origin, you'll almost always find that it came from an old-media reporter, usually writing for a newspaper.

But the old media are shedding reporters rapidly, which raises a question: where will the reporting of the future come from?

Let us turn now to the second province of modern journalism, the new media.
When the blogs were invented, there was euphoria. "Ding dong, the witch is dead!" the bloggers sang lustily – the witch being the old media, who were about to get what they deserved.
But blogging turns out to be a hard business. The money is generally lousy, and there's a constant struggle to get and hold an audience.

Bloggers don't get much time off. When I was teaching, I recruited a successful West Coast blogger to speak to my class. He came, but only after fretting that his audience might wither if he abandoned the keyboard for a flight across the country.

It's tough in other ways, too. There is a centrifugal force in blogging. If you are a moderate and portray the world in thoughtful shades of gray, your audience will abandon you. The loneliest place in the blogosphere is the middle of the road.

Although blogs have contributed much to the national discussion, they offer only a rare flash of original reporting. For fresh information, the blogs remain deeply dependent on the old media, which they simultaneously deplore and utilize extensively.

Perhaps someday the blogs will make enough money to employ reporters in significant numbers. But that day is not in sight.

Which brings us to the third and last element of media today, the portals: Google, Yahoo, MSN and others.

Overnight, these ingenious businesses have become primary sources of news for millions. And overnight they have made billions of dollars.

Rich as they are, though, the portals employ few reporters. Last I checked, the most successful of them, Google, had no reporters at all. Why originate news when news is free?

The trend here is evident. The trend is that a tide of money is flowing decisively away from those who employ reporters and to those who don't.

You don't need a degree in economics to see what this implies for journalism. And you don't need a degree in political science to see what it implies for democratic self-government.

That's what we know at this point about Question Number One, a quantitative question about how many reporters we will have in the future. In contrast, Question Number Two is a qualitative one.

Question Number Two: What principles, if any, will guide the journalism of the digital age?

A friend mine was in Mississippi recently campaigning for Senator Obama in the primary there.
The African-American voters in Mississippi were already enthusiastic about Obama, but the whites were not. Her job to was to knock on doors of white families.

The people were polite, she said, but when she probed them on the subject of Obama, they responded: "Oh no, I could never support him. He's a Muslim."

Or: "I could never support him. He refuses to use the Bible when he takes the oath of office."
Or even this one: "I could never support him. He's a terrorist."

In general, the marketplace of ideas is enriched by the addition of new voices. But not all new voices are journalistic. Some are decidedly un-journalistic, aimed not at serving the public but at manipulating it.

Imperfect as the old media are, they are imbued with deeply held ethical convictions. At the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, the betrayals of the Staples and Jayson Blair scandals provoked insurrections. In both cases, feelings in the newsroom were so volcanic that calm could only be restored by dismissing the top leadership.

This sense of ethics – this sense of what a journalist does and doesn't do – is built into the old media. But among much of the new media, it is a foreign language.

So, in answer to the question -- what principles will guide journalism in the digital age? -- we don't yet have a clear answer. Will journalism – real journalism – triumph over propaganda? Over marketing? Over disinformation?

We'll see.

Question Number Three: Will we have journalistic institutions that are strong enough, and independent enough, to serve as a counter-weight to big government and big corporations?

The advent of the lone blogger has touched something in the nation's collective memory.
Bloggers see themselves as heirs to the pamphleteers who were prominent in the American Revolution. I think they're right. If Thomas Paine were alive, no doubt he'd be blogging away.
But one important thing has changed since those early days: Institutions have grown. Government has become huge. Business is huge. The tools of spin and of deception are huge and sophisticated. And, likewise, institutions of journalism have grown, too.

It seems to me that big, institutional journalism – not just a din of individual voices -- is still needed.

Consider the story in The New York Times that exposed the wiretapping of American citizens by the National Security Agency, which was done without court warrants as required by law.
Wiretapping has a long history in our public life. To those in power, unregulated wiretapping is like catnip.

We all know the about J. Edgar Hoover. What is less appreciated is that some of our presidents couldn't resist Hoover's dark arts. Currently I'm reading Tracy Campbell's admirable biography of Edward F. Prichard of Kentucky. Working as a young man in the Truman administration, Prichard was wiretapped by Hoover. He was not suspected of any crime, only of remaining loyal to the New Deal while serving a more centrist president. Harry Truman, a president now widely admired, was perfectly happy to receive the fruit of Hoover's criminal acts.

The sordid history illegal wiretapping by American officials, national and local, tells us why electronic surveillance must be regulated by law – and by law that cannot be wiped off the books secretly.

To me, the Times' decision, despite its detractors, was a patriotic act. It was patriotic because it reflected concern for historic American values: the rule of law; the role of Congress as a co-equal branch of government; and the citizen's right against unreasonable intrusion by government.
But the administration and its claques on the talk shows smeared The Times as unpatriotic, even traitorous, and demanded that it be criminally prosecuted for sedition.

Think, now, about what a blogger would face in attempting what The Times did.

First of all, it is unlikely that a blog would have the reportorial horsepower to break the story. The two Times reporters, both of whom I'm acquainted with, represent decades of investment. Their professional development included years of cultivating of national security sources in Washington and abroad.

Blogs generally don't have reporters, and they certainly don't have reporters as well trained and proficient as these two. So it's doubtful that a blog could have broken this story in the first place.
And if a blog did manage to break the story, it would likely be crushed in the aftermath. The opprobrium from the talk shows and the administration would devastate all but the toughest of individuals, and the legal bills could be a ticket to bankruptcy.

A blog, valuable as it is, is simply not an institution with enough heft to stand up to big government and big business. We need institutions of journalism, muscular institutions, not just individual voices.

Let's turn, finally, to the students in the audience, particularly those of you who are drawn to journalism.

There are many reasons to be a journalist. Perhaps you have a curious nature, and journalism gives you license to scratch that itch. Maybe you get a craftsman's satisfaction from working with words. Maybe you enjoy the company of journalists and share their outsider's perspective on the orthodoxies of business and government Maybe you'd like to expose the next Enron scandal -- or thwart some future president's plan to invade the wrong country.

Well the good news is that all those opportunities are open to you today. And, beyond that, there is better news.

There will be journalism in the future. And the journalism of the future will have tools unlike any imagined by earlier generations.

You will have new tools for finding things out, and tools to send your stories to the entire world at the speed of light.

Journalism has always been a one-way bulletin from journalist to public. Now it is a conversation with millions of participants, which gives us access to new facts and new ideas.

Thanks to hyperlinks, you can write accordion-like stories that can be expanded to match each reader's degree of interest. One person might give your story ten seconds; another might spend a rewarding half day with it.

The journalism of the future will be flexible, making fluid use of video, audio and text to tell stories as they can best be told.

I won't attempt to list all the new forms journalism is taking. A noteworthy example is YouTube, which is playing an important role in the current presidential election campaign.

Among many promising experiments is a nonprofit outfit called ProPublica, which is assembling a cluster of high caliber investigative reporters to take up the slack from the old media.

There are many other exciting new ventures in journalism -- far too many to enumerate here.
And we still have the old media.

The other day I had occasion to re-visit the Herald-Leader, and I wasn't exactly sure what I'd find in my old newsroom. Lo and behold, it looked pretty much like a newsroom. Exactly like a newsroom, in fact. People were tapping at their keyboards, talking on the phone, gossiping, telling jokes, and no doubt complaining about heavy-handed editors.

They, too, are fretting. They feel they don't have enough staff. But the staff of the Herald-Leader today is almost exactly the size it was when I left in 1991, which isn't bad. You can do a lot with such a staff.

So, among the old media, the game is far from over.

My hope is that the new media, these wondrous vehicles for individual self-expression, will continue doing what they're already doing: enriching the national conversation, keeping the old media honest and creating entirely new languages of journalism. I also hope that they'll find ways to make more money and thereby to employ reporters in meaningful numbers.

At the same time, I'm hoping that the old media will continue to employ large teams of professional journalists, to propagate their traditional definition of ethical journalism, and, when necessary, to stand up decisively to the government and other big institutions.

With the combination of the two – the old media and the new – we, with a little luck and hard work, could be embarking on something quite wonderful. Something a jaded old editor might even acknowledge as unprecedented, even historic. I'll go further, unveiling perhaps for the first time, the fragile flower of my own creativity, by saying that possibly -- just possibly -- we might live to see a new age, a golden age of journalism.

Let us all hope.

What's your view of the future of journalism?


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