Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

October 3, 2011


Host: Ted Simons

The Future of Media


  • The Federal Communications Commission is meeting in Phoenix to examine information needs of communities and the future of news media in a changing media landscape. Join us for a look at the issues with Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications; and Tim McGuire the Cronkite School’s Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism and former editor and Senior Vice President of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
Guests:
  • Leonard Downie Jr. - Former Executive Editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications,Tim McGuire - The Cronkite School’s Frank Russell Chair for The Business of Journalism and Former Editor and Senior Vice President of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis
Keywords: Federal Communications Commission, media, Journalism,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Well, ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism hosted an FCC hearing today on the future of news and information in a changing media landscape. Central to the discussion was an FCC report on the information needs of communities. We'll hear what ASU journalism professors have to say about the meeting, but first, here's part of the opening remarks from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Julius Genachowski: Much is going well when it comes to the internet and journalism. Digital innovations have made the gathering and distribution of news and information faster, less expensive and more democratic. In our negative's history, we've never had a greater opportunity to realize our founding vision of a vibrant democracy stirred by a strong free press and informed citizens. So the first contribution of the report is its focus on the opportunities of new technologies. Now, the second is focus on the challenges. Foremost is the disruptive impact the internet and economic pressures have had on local news gathering. The report describes compellingly the deficits in the media system, most especially an emerging gap in local news reporting that's not yet been fully filled by digital media. This matters tremendously. If citizens don't get local news and information, the health of our democracy suffers. The less quality local reporting we have, the less likely we are to learn about problems and misdeeds, whether they're schools that fail children, hospitals that mistreat patients, or factories that pollute water. We continue to make strides at the FCC and around the country on the fundamental recommendation of the report, achieving universal brand access for all American. The report has no more important recommendation.

Ted Simons: Joining me to talk about today's hearing and what was said about the future of the media is one of the panelists from the hearing, Leonard Downie Jr., Weil Family Professor of Journalism for ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and former Editor of the "Washington Post." Also joining us, Tim McGuire, the Cronkite School's Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism and a former Editor and Senior Vice President for the "Star Tribune" in Minneapolis. Thanks for joining us. Before we get to what the chairman said, and maybe get to hear what one of the commissioners said as well, the media landscape-at least the start of what he had to say it seems like it’s more vibrant than ever. Do you agree?

Leonard Downie Jr: It's a contradiction. It's more vibrant than never because the digital revolution enables everyone to be involved in the media. It's interactive and citizens can take pictures of catastrophes of where they live and send them into television networks and then it contributes to wider dissemination of the news. Locally, however, the newspapers and television stations are struggling with the impact of the loss of advertising revenue that has forced them to cut their staffs. Cut their resources for covering local news. That's what the chairman was talking about. That's the bad news. The good news on the front is that there are some digital startups that don't require production facilities and delivery of newspapers or big television studios and university produced journalism- students working under faculty supervision, doing things like the Cronkite School does like providing coverage that can’t be provided by these organizations. They're able to partner with them to accomplish news coverage that might not be accomplished otherwise. That’s the balance we’re trying to strike.

Ted Simons: From what you heard today, from what you see, from what you know, is there more good news or bad news?

Tim McGuire: Well, I think for corporate mainstream media, it's more bad news. As Len says very eloquently, the news ecosystem is more vibrant, I think the good news that came out of Steve Walden's report that was discussed at the hearing today is the focus on these problems. I'm at the point where I really worry American citizens don't really understand what's going on here. And just how serious things are for mainstream media. I think this accomplishes a part of that.

Ted Simons: Interesting you say that, and I want to get back to what you were saying as well. One of the FCC commissioners for the hearing had some interesting things to say, Michael Copps speaking about some of the concerns, some of the challenges in the current media landscape.

Michael J Copps: Today, the media we depend upon to inform our democracy has one foot in the traditional newspaper and broadcast newsroom and one foot in the media of the internet. The traditional media has been cut to the bone in order to deliver greater dividends to shareholders. Hundreds of newsrooms have been shuttered and thousands of reporters walk the streets in search of a job rather than walk the beats in search of a story. Investigative journalism is on life support and every day, hundreds of reports and stories that Americans should be reading go unreported. Real news has been too often been replaced by fluff. And democracy is not well served by fluff. New media, of course, holds tremendous potential with its little barriers to entry, to its lack of printing costs, and its ability to flash news from around the world in moments. But it has come nowhere near to filling the holes left in the wake of traditional media's ills. In spite of all of the innovation and creativity we see out there, much of it emanating right here, there is still no new media model to fund the kind of investigative journalism that your country and my country has to have.

Ted Simons: Why is that gap there? Why is that gap, according to the commissioner and I think according to many, widening? Accountability journalism- nature abhors a vacuum. What's happening here?

Leonard Downie Jr: Accountability journalism is expensive. It requires really good journalists who can dig very deeply and present it in ways that will engage people and not go off into the ether and that's what he is talking about. The need to find the support for that kind of journalism. That's why, I think the one thing he under-estimates is the strong interest among many journalists, including young journalists in still doing accountability journalism. There are a lot of attempts to go and do that. There’s a lot of startups. Even within the old news organizations when they cut resources are still trying to emphasize accountability journalism. The search is for the economic model that will make that work.

Ted Simons: Is there an economic model out there? We've talked about this before. It doesn't seem like the model is out there. The commissioner doesn’t seem to think that the model is out there. Are you seeing it?

Tim McGuire: There's a lot of things emerging, I think right now, they're very disorganized and nothing is really bringing them together. That was discussed today. How do you get those efforts into the mainstream media? The Cronkite School, News 21 under Len's direction and others, have produced a wonderful piece on food safety this week. The dissemination is going well.

The "Washington Post" ran it. It's at the top of MSNBC. Those efforts are important, but we have to come to grips with the fact that Macy's is no longer subsidizing journalism the way it did, and every other advertiser.

Ted Simons: I understand the financial model but why accountability journalism troubled? Advocacy journalism, blogs and the like, are all over the place. Some do a good job, reasonably good job, some don't but coming from a point of view. All advocates pushing their particular line of thinking. Why is that working and the other not?

Tim McGuire: I'm not sure if that's working too. They're under siege too.

Ted Simons: Are they?

Ted Simons: But now they shifted their efforts. And they’ve realized, as you said, they're filling a vacuum. But I don't think they're in the clover either. Len?

Leonard Downie Jr: And it's cheaper. Accountability journalism is expensive and expressing opinions is cheap. You don't need to do the digging you don’t need the assistant reporter -- you don't need all of that stuff to express an opinion. And the internet has unleashed an American love of opinion that may have been bottled up until the internet allowed it. I take a philosophical view of that. That we may be going through a period, a fad of advocacy that may wane in time.

Tim McGuire: Let's point out, not all accountability journalism is loved. In fact, a lot of it is hated. We've offended a lot of folks with good and important accountability journalism. It’s not going to be the homecoming king or queen. Accountability journalism is tough and hard and it makes a lot of people sad.

Leonard Downie Jr: This is why there was a lot of discussion at the hearing today, what can foundations do, what can universities do to support student-generated journalism like the News 21 project that Tim talked about. It comes -- in part, the support has to come philanthropically because it’s not necessarily popular.

Ted Simons: Nonprofit journalism overall, university journalism in particular?

Leonard Downie Jr: Both of them. The models for the future are mixed models. And we don’t know exactly what the mix is yet. It's like chemistry. People are trying out different things. Sometimes it explodes and sometimes it does nothing. They’re looking for the right combination.

Ted Simons: Nonprofit journalism, future?

Tim McGuire: Absolutely. But it will fit into an ecosystem. There will be professional journalism, there will be professional nonprofit journalism, there will be university journalism. The key is as Len just said, is getting it mixed together right and then getting it to the right audiences.

Ted Simons: Will the right audiences understand how they're getting it? Understand the importance of it -- right now, as I mentioned regarding blogs and these things, most of their opinions are based on reporting that's done by traditional news services. I don't think a lot of people realize when the job is lost at the major paper or television, no one is covering the city council meeting anymore, no one is covering the gum shoe type stuff that everyone wants to have an opinion on.

Tim McGuire: I think you're making an important point. Right now, we're farther ahead on national and perhaps state accountability journalism than we are at the local level. And one will hope that that will all start to become part of that ecosystem I talk about.

Leonard Downie Jr: Part of the good news is that while younger people don't recognize that's where the news comes from, they are looking at more news than ever before. It might be bits and bytes on their smart phones. But studies by the Pew Research Center shows they are interested in news, and being an optimistic that I am, I take some heart.

Ted Simons: As an optimistic, do you agree with the report that suggests power is shifting away from citizens to government because of the lack of accountability out there?

Leonard Downie Jr: I don't think strongly, I've been around a long time now and I can remember a time, say, in the '50s, when government had all the power and journalism didn't bother hardly at all. These things rise and fall.

Ted Simons: What do you think about that?

Tim McGuire: I’m concerned. I think it is a threat. I taught the other day -- I told my students that there’s a new report that says there are four P.R. people for every reporter. That's got to affect things from business to government. They're going to be shaping the news and they've got an assigned mission. There is nothing wrong with P.R. people. They're very nice people, but they've got a different job than journalists do.

Ted Simons: And do news consumers understand that difference?

Tim McGuire: No, not all of them. Some do. And that's why, as I said earlier, that's why this is so important. To get this discussion started. We've been talking about it in news circles. Len did a report two years ago there has been a lot of reports. I get very nervous about this whole government involvement here. Len and I are a little different there. But I do think the FCC is doing an important thing by shining a light on a terrifically important issue to citizens.

Leonard Downie Jr: There’s one other dimension that answers your question, the so-called “news literacy movement” is still in its infancy. A university in New York and a group of people working with high school students in Washington started pilot programs to teach students how to deal with the news. Not advocating for newspapers or television or things like that. But just when you read a blog, what are you seeing there, where is that coming from? When you are reading the "The New York Times," what does that represent? When you are reading some advocacy thing, what's that all about? So that the news consumers will be smart enough to sort through the issues that you're talking about. That's very important. Commissioner Copps was emphasizing his strong interest in advancing the news literacy movement.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, and everything we’ve talked about and with everything that was said at the hearing, are you optimistic for the future of journalism?

Leonard Downie Jr: I'm cautiously optimistic about the future of journalism, that's my nature. But I see at the Cronkite School this tremendous enthusiasm by young people to commit good journalism and they're learning the multimedia skills that enable them to do it in this new world. Obviously, the other side of the coin is the financial support for it.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, you can learn a whole lot of skills and no jobs we’re back at square one.

Leonard Downie Jr: That's the issue.

Ted Simons: Optimistic?

Tim McGuire: I'd use the word “excited”. I think there's a lot of fascinating things going on. I think it's a very mysterious world, we don't know where we're heading, and I'll reserve on the optimistic/pessimistic but I'm certainly excited about it. I think there’s just a lot of neat stuff starting to happen.

Ted Simons: Gentlemen, great discussion great to see you both here, thanks for joining us.

Leonard Downie Jr: Thank you.


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