Overseas Press Club

Overseas Press Club Foundation
Encouraging the next generation of foreign correspondents

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Michael Oreskes, The Associated Press
Text of his remarks at the
2009 OPC Foundation Scholarship Luncheon
February 13, 2009 - Yale Club, New York City

Michael OreskesAny discussion of journalism reminds me of something said 100 years ago by an American writer and philosopher named Elbert Hubbard. In his day, Hubbard was the most sought after lecturer in America and a correspondent as well for the Hearst chain of newspapers. From that experience Hubbard formed his definition of an editor. An editor, Hubbard said, is a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff … and to see that the chaff is printed. Hubbard clearly had an astute understanding of the journalistic process.

Our job as journalists is to separate, to sort. One sharp editor once said that to edit is to choose.  I hope we sometimes make better picks than Hubbard seemed to credit us with… But that is for our audiences to decide. Of course mentioning our audiences begins to bring us to the heart of the matter.

 Elbert Hubbard died long before the birth of the Internet, or even of television or radio. But to belabor his agricultural analogy, living in the digital age is like standing at the bottom of a grain elevator as they pour in the wheat.

Our audiences are literally drowning in information, unrefined wheat and chaff and all the muck raked up with the harvest. You can call this the digital age, or the Internet age, or the information age…to a lot of people it must seem like the age of information overload.  At first that overload seems like a problem to journalism, perhaps a fatal problem, but I suggest it is in fact our opportunity. Indeed, information overload is THE opportunity that we as journalists cannot afford to miss. For our own sakes and for the sake of the democratic societies that need what we journalists do.

It is the opportunity to reshape what we do so it survives well into the future.
Now, most of you in this room today are journalists. A few of you are publishers or business managers and most of you business folks might actually like journalists. But all of us know that the news business is in a time of crisis. The talk at those journalism gatherings I mentioned at the outset is all about how the future is already rushing past us.
It was that sense of panic that prompted Dopfner, the savvy ceo of Axel Springer, to warn his colleagues—that is to say, to all of us-- not to commit suicide out of a fear of dying.
But what is all the panic about and what does Dopfner’s advice actually mean?

Now a lot of people would probably say that newspaper people are upset because newspaper circulation is declining. That would be true, but only partly true, because it is only partly true even that newspaper circulation is declining. The circulation of paid for newspapers in Europe and North America has been declining. That is true.
But the total circulation of paid for newspapers all over the world is continuing to climb. And in Europe where I used to live, the distribution of newspapers given out for free is soaring. So, the total circulation of all newspapers all over the world is up, substantially. In other words, there are still millions of people all over the world who want the news…and even want the news in that old fashioned form of a newspaper.

And that of course is not even beginning to count the large and growing audiences for news on the Internet.

In other words, there is an audience out there. There is compelling evidence that the appetite for knowledge and understanding of an increasingly tangled and complex world is as great or maybe even greater than it has ever been. This should hardly be a surprise. We are in the midst of an incredible cycle of history. Out of sheer self protection and self interest, people want to know what is going on.

And it has become clearer and clearer that the growth of the internet and other new ways of distributing news and information can be a positive not a negative for more traditional forms of journalism. A survey by Gallup for the world economic forum found that interest in printed newspapers and magazines actually goes UP among Internet users when they are seeking analysis and context. That is entirely consistent with our day-to-day experience.

Look at the enormous outpouring for all forms of coverage of the American presidential election and the inauguration of Obama

Or go back with me to a moment a couple of years ago when the British government announced it had broken up a plot to bomb aircraft at Heathrow airport. The story received blanket coverage across Europe the first afternoon on TV and on the Internet.
Despite that coverage, or maybe because of it, sales of the International Herald Tribune the next morning in Western Europe were up 20 percent.

So there is an audience out there. Whatever audience issues we have are not all that different from the audience issues we always have had—finding creative new ways to grab and hold people’s attention in a busy competitive world.

What is causing panic among folks in the news business, particularly in Europe and
North America is a huge business model crisis. There is a large and growing audience that wants news and information.  But here in the heart of the developed world there are fewer people who want to pay for their news and more opportunities for advertisers to reach their audiences in new ways.

As the headline on the front page of the IHT said not long ago, for many media companies, free is the new paid. And that is no small thing. For more than 100 years journalists have been sustained by a virtuous circle of readers who were willing to pay for the news and advertisers who were willing to pay to reach those readers. Publishers made money and journalists made a living and democratic society was better off for the bargain.

But now that bargain is breaking down, the large news organizations that have created much of what we have thought of as quality journalism are under extraordinary business pressures that threaten their ability to sustain that journalism. And that of course brings us right back to the question of the future of journalism in an age of information overload.
The solution to information overload, at least part of the solution, is journalism.
The Internet offers us this alluring idea that all information is available to everyone all the time.  But no one in their real life has time to absorb all that information, to make sense of it, to separate the wheat from the chaff.. That is what journalism is for, as Elbert Hubbard told us long ago.

Mathias Doepfner said that what people want more than ever now is ORIENTATION—direction through the overload of information that is daily life. That is what journalists know how to do. The more society is inundated with information the more we need the service of journalism. But the very forces that are increasing the need for journalism are also the forces undercutting the business model that has sustained the journalism we need. So clearly, new models are needed.

I am very pleased to be working at an organization that is working hard to adapt old models and develop  new ones to sustain our journalism.

As we develop these models, we as journalists have a very specific responsibility. It is to remember, and to remind governments, business colleagues and society in general, who we are and what we actually know how to do.  Change is essential.

You will have to help lead the way as we learn to distribute our work in new ways, and to create new forms of journalism that fit the new forms of distribution.  We need to adapt to the new attitudes of our audiences, too. Our authority and credibility used to come from our exclusivity and our control over the sources and distribution of information. In the future it may come just as much from our transparency, our credibility and our willingness to interact with our audiences.

In this new world we are no longer gatekeepers. So what shall we become? Guides, perhaps? Color Commentators? Referees? A Greek Chorus? That question alone could keep our discussion going for some time. But whatever image we adopt for what we should become I think it is clear what we should NOT become. We must not be conveyor belts. The Internet is a medium with enormous power to bring people together and allow them to communicate in new ways. We don’t need to be in their way.  But as journalists we add something important. And as we adapt and invent new forms for our new medium it is our job to reassert the basic value, and the basic values, of journalism.

We are the independent observers of the world, who go places others can’t go, dig where others can’t dig, study and interpret what others do not have time to study and interpret. And we do all this with no agenda other than to help our audiences understand and navigate the world.

Those values are more valuable than ever. But in the panic to change there is a risk we will lose sight of—or lose our grip on-- those core values. THAT was what Mathias Dopfner was trying to tell us when he warned journalists not to commit suicide out of a fear of dying. He was saying that if journalists change so much that we lose who we are we will be just as dead as if we had not changed at all.

And that would be a tragedy not just for those of us who make our livings, and hope to make our livings in this craft. The death or even the decline of journalism is a weakening in one of the vital planks of free society.

I look around the world and I see considerable evidence today of government’s asserting their authority over information in new and disturbing ways—precisely because they perceive independent news organizations to be weaker.

Whether it is the US military spending billions on public relations while making it harder for reporters to report OR China convincing Google to censor itself to gain access to two point two billion Chinese eyeballs, the trend is clear.  Governments are going around journalism because they can…often because the public is not even sure they are losing much when they lose our voice

The only effective response to this is to reassert our value to society and reestablish our ability both as businesses and as professionals to stand independently of governments or of the other large institutions of society.

I have wondered a lot recently whether the world financial crisis would be quite as bad as it has become if journalism over the last few years had been a little more able to rise above its own financial crisis and describe more forcefully to a broad audience the looming meltdown we were all headed toward…

Stronger journalism means a better society.  Indeed there is a professor at the London School of Economics who has actually charted the relationship:

As press freedom goes up, corruption goes down.
As press freedom goes up so does national income.

Journalism really matters. We have to believe that and we have to help others understand it.

So we have a responsibility to complete the job that is already underway…to reinvent the media business to assure that it can continue to sustain the quality journalism that is so vital.  To do that, we must listen to the market.  We must listen to the social networking entrepreneurs who are tapping the Internet’s power of community. And to the bloggers who have revived that fine old art of pamphleteering in a powerful new way by combining it with the Internet’s power of aggregation. We must hear them and understand the message of change…but then we must combine that message with what we know inside ourselves to be the value of what we know how to do as journalists. And from that synthesis of tradition and change there will come a new future for journalism.  That future is your future

I hope you will invite me back to lunch twenty or thirty years from now to let me know how it turned out.

Good luck

 

 

 

   
 
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