If We Could Only Have A Glimpse At Tomorrow's Headlines Today

brucePhilanthropy New York held a panel discussion in New York City last week with the catchy title, Internet to Newspapers: Drop Dead. The panel featured Steve Coll, President of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine; Nicholas Lemann, Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University; and Victor Pickard, Senior Research Fellow at the media reform organization, Free Press. Vincent Stehle, Program Director, Surdna Foundation, moderated the discussion.

Between the title of the session and the panelists, I had no doubt this would be a deep, thoughtful Notebook conversation, and maybe one that would help move the conversation from hand-wringing about the future of newspapers to a discussion of solutions.

My reasons for attending were both personal (see later for explanation) and professional. My professional reasons for attending mostly had to do with the fact that even though much of the work that professional communicators in philanthropy do these days is far less dependent than it used to be on getting stories placed and issues editorialized in papers -- now that there are more opportunities to connect directly with audiences (web sites, blogging, videos, etc.) -- we still wince when we read about another paper being shuttered. And at the same time, while this is an issue whose outcome we're probably not likely to have much influence on ourselves, as professional communicators we do care (or should) about what that outcome is (since it will ultimately affect how we do our jobs).

Needless to say there was lots of good talk during the session about the threats to our democracy if we don't have a vibrant and independent press and the means, will and capacity to support investigative journalism, in particular. One of the best lines: "If hospitals were to suddenly start disappearing, we'd be deeply concerned about the future of our public health. But why don't we hear the same about the threat to the health of our democracy from vanishing newspapers." Overall, the panelists and audience did a very good of demonstrating their concern for the future of newspapers, reminding us of the need for public officials to be held to account for their decisions, and the importance of an informed citizenry.

But after having had a chance to reflect on the panel for a few days, what struck me most about the conversation is how hard it is for most of us to let go of the past. It seems to me that just framing the matter as Internet to Newspapers: Drop Dead -- catchy or not -- in itself is making the statement that the threats on the horizon are greater than the opportunities that are also available. Of course, it's impossible to predict what might eventually replace newspapers, if they do disappear (or not), and how that will affect our lives. In fact, what brought me to that realization was a challenge from Nicholas Lemann to one audience member. He said "go for a week without reading the newspaper and see what you miss." The problem with questions like that is that they presume that once newspapers are gone so are news gathering and reporting and the skilled professionals who do that work. That just doesn't seem possible.

Don't get me wrong, I love newspapers, and for a very special reason. I had the privilege to work as a reporter at a daily newspaper while going to college, it was like getting two educations at once. My newspaper days set the stage for the rest of my career, and I wouldn't be doing what I do today without that experience. To this day I'm so hooked on starting my morning with the paper that I get angry and ready to begin dialing and complaining to customer service when it's even a few minutes late. But that's because it's what I'm used to. It seems like we could make far more progress toward figuring out the future of news if we just accept the fact that things are changing and will continue to change, and there's no harm in investing in, supporting, and experimenting with new ways to report and deliver news, information and commentary. Who knows, we might still end up with some form of traditional newspapers and the range of electronic supplements that, more or less, are still in their infancy.

There's no shame, too, in admitting how much we all are benefiting from -- and maybe even enjoying -- the seemingly never ending explosion of information that comes to us in ways we couldn't have anticipated years ago (especially those of us who reacted in horror when our manual typewriters were replaced with electrics). Even foundations have found great many uses from the new communications technologies to share information, connect with audiences and further the impact of their work in ways that were unimaginable years ago. As we noted in a report by David Brotherton and Cynthia Scheiderer (Come on In. The Water's Fine) that the Communications Network published last year on how foundations are -- or should be -- taking advantage of the new technologies:

People are becoming less and less dependent on traditional media for their news and information. They are turning to other credible places and sources. There is no reason foundations cannot be part of that mix and use that development to their advantage. But to do so requires that foundations play by the new rules and model their offerings after those organizations and entities that are attracting growing and engaged audiences.

To be clear, I'm neither predicting nor suggesting an end to the news business as we know it. But as I read the various articles written about the future of the news business, follow the conversations on the blogs, and hear what's being discussed at panels, I am reminded that it's how you start the conversation that can have a great impact on all that follows.

So, from now on I pledge not to ask what we need to do to save newspapers. I'm going to ask instead how -- over time, and with as minimum disruption as possible -- can we preserve what's working about how news is covered and reported and how can we continue to modify, supplement, expand what we have so we end up with something even better than we have now.

Postscript: In a piece in the Sunday, May 24 New York Times, David Carr wrote about a makeover for Newsweek magazine, which he describes as coming "at a time when current events are produced and digested on a cycle that is measured with an egg timer, not a calendar." In his concluding line, Carr offers this prescient thought:

The big talents and ambitious journalists that remain at Newsweek should probably spend less time reimagining the magazine and more time imagining a future when the physical product does not exist.

Bruce Trachtenberg

Posted at 12:09 PM, May 29, 2009 in Peace and Justice | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment

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