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National journalists tackle media explosion

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The Advisory Committee of Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy discussed the uncertain future of journalism with students, faculty and visitors Monday as they addressed the question, “What will it take for journalism to survive the information revolution?”

The seven members of the committee, all Notre Dame graduates who currently hold prominent and diverse positions in the American media, drew upon their various experiences in the field to explain the increasing adaptations the industry must make to survive in a world which is becoming more dependent upon the Internet and corporate ownership.

Professor Bob Schmuhl, director of the Gallivan Program, posed the central question that weighed on the minds of many young journalists at the beginning of the discussion – with the rise of Internet media outlets, blogs and downsizing of print and broadcast staffs, will there even be jobs in traditional journalism in the future?

Although several panelists expressed frustrations with recent changes in how news is gathered and distributed, the majority of the speakers projected an optimistic view of the future of journalism.

Tom Bettag, senior executive producer of ABC News “Nightline,” responded that although bloggers and Internet sources have encroached upon traditional journalists’ domains over the past several years, established journalistic institutions still perform valuable roles in society that cannot be replaced.

“People simply do not have the time to experience all these things for themselves,” Bettag said. “They need editors to wean this stuff down into what they need to know as a citizen. Even more important, there is a serious credibility problem with Internet sources. If someone established like Tom Brokaw says something, you can probably believe it.”

Anne Thompson, chief financial correspondent for NBC News, echoed Bettag’s sentiments.

“It’s not only an issue of credibility, but bloggers also do not have the same resources that journalists like us have,” Thompson. “They don’t necessarily have money for travel expenses, research assistants, well-connected sources and other things like that needed to produce quality news.”

Bill Mitchell, director of publishing and online editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, highlighted the imminent changes occurring in the journalism world as a result of the information revolution, regardless of traditional journalism’s resilience in some aspects of news distribution.

“We no longer play the ‘gatekeeper’ role that we once did,” Mitchell said. “Back in my parents’ day, journalists could decide what was and was not newsworthy, but now there are no fences on either side of the gate, so things are rushing in all around us.”

In addition to problems with changing roles of journalists and their ability to control the flow of information to the public, other panelists drew attention to the mere survival of traditional journalists.

Monica Yant Kinney, metro columnist for The Philadel-phia Inquirer, expressed frustration over the uncertainty of her job due to constant fluctuations in corporate ownership and cited such issues as indicative of broader problems in the media industry.

“Knight-Ridder owns us, and they decided that a 19 percent profit margin was not enough, so for the fifth time in five years, we are now re-imagining who we are and what we should cover,” Yant Kinney said. “We need local voices and credible figures to survive because no one can do our jobs like we can.”

John McMeel, chairman of Andrews McMeel Universal, said although struggles with corporate ownership can be difficult, the information revolution should not be viewed as a completely negative phenomenon.

The expansion of online consumers of news allows traditional publications and networks to now utilize multiple vehicles for disseminating their content, McMeel said. For example, a news anchor can write for the network Web site and respond to questions from viewers online.

Kelley Tuthill, anchor for WCVB-TV in Boston, also discussed the possibility for additional opportunities in journalism sparked by the online news expansion.

“I’m very hopeful about these changes because now we will have time to produce stories for a Web site or something like that which includes information that we just couldn’t fit into that minute and thirty seconds on camera,” Tuthill said.

Thompson added that new media outlets allow news organizations to have a more pervasive impact upon an increasingly preoccupied public.

“Now, you can get online and watch a complete broadcast of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on our Web site, so that people who still want to know what’s going on but are not able to take time out of their day at 6:30 at night like my parents’ generation could, can still see this product that we all worked hard on,” Thompson said.

An audience member raised the concern, however, that multiple responsibilities could lead to insufficient time to produce stories.

In response, Thompson likened the increasing responsibility of producing news for several outlets to a mother with three children.

“You aren’t a worse mother when you have more children,” Thompson said. “You just manage your time and work through it.”

Don Wycliff, public editor of The Chicago Tribune, returned to the previously-discussed credibility issue.

“With all these new sources of news, it becomes more and more difficult to determine the veracity of news available to the public,” Wycliff said. “Yet, I think the answers lie with the students in this room and young consumers of news. You will find a new approach because you grew up in a different age and will know how to get consumers to give us what we want – their time.”

Mitchell outlined three specific groups he thought would demand such a new approach to distributing news – consumers who consistently pay money for quality news, working journalists who believe in their craft as a public service and advertisers who want their ads to run in respectable and widely-circulated publications.