Read All about It

By Erin Peterson

With the rapid decline of many traditional media companies, quite a few Carls have reevaluated and reinvented their careers. While it’s not clear how journalism will evolve over the next decade, these alumni are finding new ways to communicate.

If there had been any question that these are trying times for traditional media companies, it was put to rest by the steady stream of grim headlines in 2009. In February the Rocky Mountain News published its final print edition. In May the Seattle Post-Intelligencer followed suit. More than 40 consumer magazines published their final issue in 2009. And the popularity of broadcast television news continued to tumble, extending a slide that has slashed viewership by half during the past 30 years. The dismal economy has hastened the decline of many former media powerhouses—but even before the recession, the increase in the number of people getting their news online and the decrease in advertising revenues were already threatening the industry’s survival.

Journalism isn’t dead, but it is in dire need of resuscitation. No one is sure exactly what journalism will look like a decade from now, but print and broadcast journalists will have to reinvent their jobs, their product, and even their revenue models to find a place in the new media world, says Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery ’89. “There’s a lot of spaghetti being thrown at the wall right now,” she says. “We hope that enough will stick to get us through this rough time.”

Carls are at the forefront of the transformation, examining new ways to tell important stories, connect with readers and viewers, and stay profitable in a challenging environment. Here they provide a glimpse of what lies ahead for journalism.

The New Journalist

Ellen Byron '98When Ellen Byron ’98 landed a position at the Wall Street Journal in 2000, her reporting responsibilities looked fairly similar to those of the reporters who had preceded her: She would grab a notebook and a pen, report the story, then return to her desk and write it up.

Today, as a staff reporter, she would never be confused with reporters from years past. She has a whole bag of gear that she uses to tell a story—including a digital still camera, a video camera, and a digital voice recorder—and the process requires far more advance preparation. “From the beginning, I have to think about how I’ll present the story,” she says. “Do I need to create an online video? Do I need to have a photo slide show? We do podcasts here, too, so there’s even an audio component to reporting.”

The relatively recent focus on multimedia storytelling has required her to learn new technologies quickly and has made her day-to-day work more challenging, but she has embraced the transition. “When I think about my own media habits, I realize that they’ve changed,” she says. “I watch videos online, I flip through slide shows, and I listen to podcasts. I realize that my own reporting has to change as well.”

She points to a 2008 feature she did on Indian entrepreneur Shahnaz Husain as one example of the power of multimedia to add depth to a story. Not only did Byron travel to India to work on the story, but she facilitated the creation of a video so that viewers could see Husain in action, prepared photos for an online slide show, and wrote an in-depth story that met the Journal’s rigorous journalistic standards.

Even basic stories include several components. A recent story on the launch of a new laundry detergent, Tide Basic, required her to pull together art for an online slide show and to be interviewed for a radio show produced by the Journal. “It’s an exciting time to be a journalist,” she says. “Information moves so fast that if you’ve got breaking news, you’ve got to put it out there immediately. But [today’s media environment] also demands that reporters become broader in their thinking about delivering that information.”

Byron recognizes that the print newspaper plays an ever-declining role in the Journal’s brand. Her stories are often posted online hours before print editions reach subscribers, which can make the newspaper story seem like old news. She still grabs a newspaper for her subway ride to work—her BlackBerry doesn’t work underground—but she won’t place any bets on whether print papers will exist 10 years from now.

Still, she remains confident about the future of the journalism profession. “The means by which readers get information will change,” she says. “But as long as people have an appetite for authoritative, unbiased, fact-based information—and in an era of corporate scandals, political scandals, and environmental scandals, it’s stronger than ever—there will be a hunger for investigative reporting. I think the public will recognize the importance of good journalism to society. That fuels my confidence about its future.”

Journalism’s Bright Future

John Lavine '63John Lavine ’63 acknowledges that many journalists today are looking for a career escape hatch, but he doesn’t think they should panic. “If there’s ever been a time when it would be great to go into [journalism], headlines notwithstanding, this would be it,” says Lavine, who is dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “There never have been more opportunities in journalism and media than there are now.”

Lavine knows that, as a whole, media have been upended over the past decade—and it’s not just because journalists have been nudged to integrate audio, video, and still photographs into their reporting. In many cases, journalists have had to reconsider their entire understanding of the business.

The kind of reporting that many journalists have grown accustomed to doing—reporting on the who, what, where, and when of a given event—is, he says, “in too many instances a commodity, not a valued service.” The cost of finding this type of information on the Web is nothing for readers, and the revenue most news outlets can extract from it through Web advertising is variable. For many longtime journalists, it may seem like the end of an era. For others, including journalism students just learning the ropes, it’s an incentive to think differently about the future.

At Medill, says Lavine, students are encouraged to think broadly

and deeply about the stories they work on. Twenty years ago, students might have written a feature story about autism, shepherded the piece through publication, responded to a letter or two, then forgotten about it entirely. Today, a student might find sources on Facebook, share details about the reporting process on Twitter, offer the finished product in print along with an audio slide show, and lead a sub-site on the newspaper’s Web site, where the story would continue to develop through reader opinions, input from experts, and links to additional content over months or years following the initial publication. Stories no longer come and go in 24 hours; they evolve.

Today’s students see that process as an opportunity, not a burden. “None of our graduates would want to work for a newspaper that didn’t have a Web site, that wasn’t accessible on your cell phone, and that didn’t have audio and video,” Lavine says. “These things make the stories they’re trying to tell better.”

In the same way that journalists are thinking entrepreneurially about individual stories, they also are learning to think entrepreneurially about their careers. Fewer students will join traditional news organizations. Instead, they’ll be working in brand-new Web organizations or in an undertaking that’s entirely their own, whether it’s a nonprofit news site like MinnPost or high-powered blogging like that of Andrew Sullivan for the Atlantic. Lavine is making sure that Medill’s curriculum prepares students for the new media world. “Since many journalists these days set up new enterprises, they take classes in journalism and integrated marketing and management,” he says.

With the right guidance, smart journalists and publications can provide better, more valuable content than ever before. “It’s going to be a bumpy [transition], and people who don’t embrace change will get left behind. But I love the excitement of this,” he says. “I’m betting that going forward, the world will be ever more complex, and if that’s true, then people will commit their time and money to understand what they need to know to be informed and make better decisions. The journalists’ role is to explain that complexity, and for the winning media—those that not only survive but thrive in turbulent times—there will be enormous opportunities.”

Nonprofit or Bust

Clara Jeffrey '89As Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery ’89 watches one media entity after another go under, she worries about more than just the fate of employees and shareholders. She worries about the vacuum that’s left behind. “What’s being lost in all of this is [who is] the ultimate victim: the American public,” she says. “A watchdog press has a critical function in our democracy.”

So as media companies cast about for ways to generate revenue in an increasingly unfriendly economic environment, ranging from paid subscriptions to advertising to fees for individual archived articles, Jeffery offers a solution that has been effective at Mother Jones for more than three decades: a nonprofit model.

“Nonprofit media institutions—National Public Radio is probably the biggest—have the ability to diversify their portfolios,” she says. “We accept ads, we sell subscriptions, we take foundation money, we have some big individual donors, and we’re reader supported. People want to support us because they believe in what we do.”

She realizes that she’s proposing an option that’s a hard sell right now. People want to get their news for free, not behind a wall of pop-up advertising and certainly not by getting guilt-tripped into opening their wallets—NPR fund drive–style—to gain access to stories.

Still, as media outlets vanish almost daily, Jeffery believes readers will begin to see that news is a service worth paying for—not a commodity to be snapped up at the cheapest possible price. Bloggers may be able to latch onto the latest news story and offer insightful analysis, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be heading en masse to report on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or tackling yearlong database reporting projects. “You get what you pay for,” she says. “[Publications] have to make readers aware of the service they provide, and readers have to put a value on that. They need to think about what it would be like if that publication weren’t there anymore.”

The idea of swapping a for-profit model for a nonprofit one has gained traction. During the past year, media outlets including the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have published stories that explore the nonprofit media model using Mother Jones as a case study. And relatively new nonprofit sites such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego are gaining credibility and financial support. While Mother Jones hasn’t been an unqualified success story—like those of other magazines, its advertising revenues have taken a hit during the past two years—its diverse income streams have protected it from the knockout punch that other media outlets have experienced.

Despite the current flux, Jeffery sees a place for all types of journalism, from unpaid bloggers to well-funded investigative reporting groups. “Journalism is like pointillism,” she says. “There are all these dots out there, and good journalism forces the reader to step back and see the bigger picture. The great thing is that with the media landscape in such chaos, people [in the media industry] are willing to entertain working in ways that they hadn’t before.”

Web Extra: Read the 2009 Report on American Journalism.

The Rise of Niche Journalism

John Harris '85When John Harris ’85 left his job at the Washington Post in 2006 to cofound Politico, a Washington, D.C.–based political Web site (and accompanying newspaper), he saw the future, and it looked small. Or at least narrow. “I saw that publications that sought to occupy a niche, and had all their editorial focus on that niche, had a more promising future than the traditional broad-focus publications that had been so powerful in the past,” he says.

Perhaps no new media outlet epitomizes this approach as much as Politico.com, a Web site that sates those with even the most ravenous political appetites. Vanity Fair recently described the site, which has some 6 million regular readers, as an “obsessive-compulsive mix of trade journal, Twitter feed, and . . . real-time chat with seniormost newsmakers and leaders.” On a recent afternoon, front-page stories included an update on the health care reform debate, an analysis of GQ’s annual “Most Powerful People in D.C.” list, and a report on Liz Cheney, who had recently launched a group to oppose the Obama administration’s foreign policy initiatives.

Unlike a general-interest newspaper, Politico focuses tightly on D.C. politics, and it has an outsize presence in the political arena. The operation now includes an editorial staff of more than 70—including eight reporters who cover the White House, more than any other news organization.

In some ways, Harris believes, his publication serves as a model for journalism ventures to come. There is no story too big or too small to be covered—as long as it centers on Washington politics, and especially if it can be reported on right now. “We are acutely tuned to the fact that there is not a once-a-day news cycle or a couple-times-a-day news cycle,” he says. “We’re very, very fast on news that is of interest to us.” Often, the site reports on an event within 20 minutes of its occurrence, whether it’s a Senate vote or a tweet by Meghan McCain.

Politico’s ability to cover D.C. political news both big and small almost in real time is its primary strength, and that is what draws political insiders, from the lowliest intern to the most powerful names in Congress, to its site each day. Its analysis, which goes well beyond what most outlets can reasonably cover, draws devoted readers—and active participants who are eager to connect with others who share their obsession. “It’s a departure from the days when a newspaper was seen as a remote, oracle-like institution,” Harris says. “We want [Politico] to be intimate and inviting.”

It turns out that these engaged insiders are exactly the type of people advertisers covet: a well-defined audience with clout. Harris credits Politico’s demographic for much of the site’s success. “We’re prosperous and we’ve been able to grow because advertisers know that the content is being read by influential people who make policy,” he says. In an environment where many media companies are seeing double-digit losses and slashing staff, Politico’s success is an anomaly, if not a miracle.

While not every publication is poised to emulate Politico’s approach, Harris believes there’s a broader lesson to learn from the publication’s success. “Any publication can define its core strengths and organize itself around those things,” he says. “You shouldn’t dilute your focus by doing things outside of that strength.”

As Politico has proved, thinking smaller can turn out to be a very big deal.

Web Extra: Get informed at Politico.com or follow Politico on Twitter.

The Perks and Perils of Citizen Journalism

Emily Barr '80Emily Barr ’80, president and general manager of ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago, has been working in television since she got her first part-time gig as a film editor for KSTP when she was a Carleton student. Over the years, she’s watched the wall between journalists and citizens erode and, in some cases, nearly disappear. She finds the change both exhilarating and alarming.

Once relegated to shouting at the TV screen in disgust, viewers now turn to their computers to share their thoughts through blogs, postings on social networking sites like Facebook, or firing off tweets on Twitter. Often referred to as citizen journalists, these outspoken media consumers aren’t just commenting on the news, they’re helping shape it.

For television stations like WLS, this outpouring of information and opinion can be a boon. “Citizen journalism can and does provide an important resource for larger, traditional media outlets,” says Barr. “Often, [the blogs] focus on neighborhood or small community issues—problems with local municipalities, for example—that a larger [media outlet] simply isn’t focused on.” At her station, reporters monitor many local blogs and sometimes follow up on a story that’s bubbled up through blogs or through Facebook tips.

While Barr supports public involvement, she also worries about the impact of influential but uninformed citizen journalists. Barr experienced this impact when her station was at the heart of one of the most explosive stories of the 2008 presidential election.

At first, the issue hardly seemed worth mentioning. In the summer of 2008, a few people e-mailed the station asking if it had a copy of what would then have been a four-year-old video of Michelle Obama purportedly using the term whitey at a Chicago luncheon hosted by the RainbowPUSH Coalition, an organization that promotes social change and social justice.

“We had no idea what they were talking about, so we wrote back and told them they were misinformed,” Barr recalls. But a conservative blogger soon picked up on the issue and encouraged his readers to contact the station. Within days, the station was getting hundreds of e-mails from people around the country who were demanding that the station release the tape.

Barr was flummoxed. She had been at the event and the station had no such recording. Obama attended the luncheon, but because she was then merely the wife of a prospective Senate candidate, she did nothing more than stand up and wave after being recognized by a speaker. But when the blogger picked up the thread, even though it was erroneous, things quickly spun out of control.

Soon the Wall Street Journal and New York Times were in hot pursuit of the story. “We were in the defensive position of having to deny covering something that never happened,” Barr says. “We were responding to vitriolic and angry phone calls from people who were 100 percent convinced we were hiding something.”

Eventually the blogger—a caterer’s assistant who had no formal training in journalism—spoke directly with Barr. While he wasn’t convinced by her insistence that there was no tape to share and that the incident never occurred, he ultimately admitted that it was a bit farfetched that a term like whitey would escape notice in a room full of 1,500 people and representatives of numerous media outlets. Nonetheless, he never printed a retraction on his blog.

While Barr believes that people who are skeptical of the mainstream media should have an outlet to offer their opinions, the millions of people who freely share their opinions need to understand that the power of having a voice must be balanced with a responsibility to check facts and to verify sources, she says. “There will always be a push and pull between [mainstream and alternative] news organizations,” she says. “I just hope that there will continue to be a formal group of media professionals who will adhere to [journalistic] principles when they report on stories.”

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)