“What is the single greatest thing with control over the news?” Brian Lamb, founder of CSPAN asked a group of roughly 300 young journalists assembled at the National Press Club. We were captivated, every one of us there to learn how to take the next step in our fledgling careers.
Now we sat in the pantheon of American journalism, the Press Club in Washington, D.C. and were furiously coming up with answers to his question.
People tossed out truth, writers, government and other wrong answers. “You guys aren’t getting this,” Lamb said. “It’s money. Money is the most controlling factor in journalism.” We slumped, realizing the simplicity of the answer.
Ever since the disappearance of classified advertisements in print publications, which took away a third of revenue, most see journalism on the decline. The arrival of the internet and democratization of publishing further reduced the ability of family-owned news organizations to compete in what became a business rather than a public service.
Television news created a news cycle operating on hours and minutes instead of days or weeks of investigation. Perhaps the latest near-death experience for journalism has been social media. News must be broken on social media, preferably in 140-character bits on Twitter, if it is to be noticed at all. Viewers have two-second attention spans, so your headline better be killer.
As part of the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, I had a chance to hear this from the professionals in the midst of the struggle for the heart of the industry. The common thread: journalism seems outdated, it is under attack every day, there’s a clear revenue problem, less time, less people, more to cover, must get everything 100 percent right. But, there’s no better time to join up.
I walked into these speeches and meetings skeptical of their optimism, as any journalist might. I left realizing these people were onto something. The problems facing the news industry were problems of evolution, not insurmountable obstacles. It’s true the old model of print newspapers on every doorstep and a handful of family monopolies isn’t sustainable, but that doesn’t mean the death of journalism. If anything it means the rise of a newer, more flexible version of journalism.
And here’s what it will take. Newsrooms are short-staffed. The New York Daily News laid off half of its newsroom this week. Publications, both online and in print, have to write about more topics with fewer writers, editors, photographers etc. Just being a writer doesn’t cut it any longer; the next generation of journalists will be fluent across all platforms and will know how to write well in addition to basic photography and editing skills. We will be required to know layout and video editing software. We will need to use social media to our full advantage, breaking news first on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and then following up with thoroughly-researched stories on the web and in print papers or magazines.
In addition to being proficient in all the above skills, our newest journalists have to solve the revenue problem. Advertising is too closely tied to market fluctuation, and subscription is a hard pill to swallow for some readers. Furthermore, if the goal of news media is the dissemination of information that the public has a right to know, why should they have to pay for it?
Whether news organizations shift to becoming non-profits in the future or find some other way of sustaining good, dutiful journalism, it calls for revolutionary thinking. As Nietzsche said, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Independent journalism must be exactly that, independent of corporate interests, not tied to shareholders or advertisers.
One last thing. Whether it was Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of National Geographic, Carol Guzy, a four-time Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist (the only one) or Brian Lamb, they all agreed on the central tenet of journalism: tell the truth. The next wave of journalism may be harder still than what we see now, but it remains as vital to democracy as ever.
A final quote from the visionary George Orwell, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Journalists, now as before, are truth-tellers. Every other aspect of the industry is just a way to convey that truth or pay for the uncovering of that truth. The mission, however, the prime directive of a journalist, is constant. Say what others must know, speak out for what is right, no matter the cost, tell the truth. Journalism comes with the caveat of immense civic responsibility, for we are writing history as it happens.