Making Journalism Indispensable

Last week, I was part of a national conference on journalism sustainability convened by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Our panel was asked to begin with an overview of the state of local-news sustainability.

Having no particular expertise regarding the mix of revenue streams everyone is testing these days, I decided to focus on what I think lies at the heart of the question: the public. Whatever happens with advertising and subscriptions, events, membership or repurposing of content, I’m convinced that a key to survival will be a public willingness to support journalism. We must come to see information in the public interest as we do the arts or education – as a civic good, one we are responsible for sustaining.

This is no small challenge, since we’ve trained the public for years to believe that the news comes to them for free — or really cheap. You turned on the TV, or you plunked down your quarter for the paper, and you never really thought about the fact that advertisers were paying the bill. This means that we are going to have to make our work so important, so engaging, that people will feel they can’t do without it.

In other words, we’ve got to make our journalism indispensable. Here are a few thoughts I shared with the journalists at the conference about how to go about it:

— Be IN and OF your community.   When I started as a cub reporter at the Colorado Springs SUN, the editor and publisher wrote a column published on the front page. As a newly minted Medill master’s graduate, I found this unorthodox custom disquieting. But it surely worked for the readers, who sensed the editor’s engagement with the community. Later, when I became editor of the Des Moines Register, we kept alive the paper’s historic tradition of running our cartoon on the front page. Register cartoonists had won two Pulitzers over the years; more important, they’d won the hearts of Iowans. In particular, the Sunday cartoons, poking fun at the state and its residents, made it clear that we were all in this together.

— At the same time, we need to remember our leadership role. We are not, as journalists, just seeking to be part of the kaffeeklatsch. We are leading a conversation. I remember focus groups at the Register in which, at the end, a reader would say, “Well, you’re the editors. Help us see what you think is possible.” It’s not a return to the old top-down model that I’m recommending here, but rather engaging in ways that broaden and deepen the community, making it more inclusive and ensuring that people discover things they don’t know.

— We need to be honest about who we are and what we’re attempting to do. The hardest voice I ever had to write in was the editorial voice of The New York Times, when I served on its editorial board. People don’t respond easily to disembodied voices. Amid today’s endless debates about objectivity, I’m struck by the power of the view espoused by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. They believe that their journalists should be, first and foremost, AUTHENTIC — a quality that is essential if they are to cultivate the rich relationship with readers that the organization seeks.

— Keep in mind that HOPE may be bigger news today than disaster. In this era of cynicism and division, we need a journalism that helps people understand that solutions are possible and government can work. Journalism is supposed to provide an accurate picture of the world around us, but ours has looked pretty lopsided for years. This is not about softball questions or happy-talk stories: Good journalism creates community through a common understanding of accurate information – the good as well as the bad.

— We must remember that we are most effective when we reach people through their hearts as well as their brains. We’ve always known that good writing and powerful photography were key to our success. We have so many more tools today for engaging people and making lasting connections. Elizabeth Alexander closed her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” by asking “…and are we not of interest to each other?” In recent years, journalism has done as much to distance us from one another as it has to connect us. Our future now may rest on our ability to correct that course.


Civic Journalism, Engaged Journalism: Tracing the Connections

Geneva Overholser's photo
By Geneva Overholser / 2016 August 3rd

“Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them.” That’s the headline on Liz Spayd’s debut as the New York Times’ new public editor. That she devoted her first column to the need to pay attention to readers’ views shows how central the idea of engagement has become for journalists.


Please see article as published by the Democracy Fund.



It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

The New York Times’s new public editor worried recently that the paper is perceived as liberal; she advised trying to address that problem. Like NPR’s bid to shed the “liberal-media” epithet by shedding Vivian Schiller, like Walter Isaacson’s attempts to cleanse CNN of it by paying a visit to Trent Lott, this is doomed to fail. Thanks in no small part to Roger Ailes.

Ailes, when he set out to create a cable network with a point of view, was clearly filling a market need. But his real brilliance lay in the motto he chose: “Fair and balanced.” The outlet designed to serve conservatives was inoculated at birth from charges of bias by claiming that it alone was free of that taint.

A few years into Fox News’s existence — on the occasion of an award being given to Fox’s leading newsman, Brit Hume — I suggested a public discussion about the merits of this new (for the U.S.) kind of journalism, The Washington media were so dog-whipped by the “liberal-media” lashings that nobody wanted to own up to noticing that Fox was conservative. But the reticence protected no one. The “liberal-media” accusations have only grown, as the public editor’s column reminds us.

Continue reading It’s not just the Fox, it’s the sheep’s clothing

One More Sexual Assault, One More Brave Woman, a Quarter Century Later

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Read it and weep  — this statement from a young woman attacked by a  Stanford freshman. Having been convicted of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious, he has now been tapped with a ruler on the wrist.

Just over 25 years ago, we published a series in The Des Moines Register  called “It Couldn’t Happen to Me: One Woman’s Story.”  I felt we were taking one strong step to move rape out of the darkness in which it flourished.  Whatever society’s pretensions against it, we seemed unlikely to act against it until we could really see it.

I knew that this seeing and even more, the acting — would require many acts of courage like that of Nancy Ziegenmeyer (the remarkable truth-telling rape survivor in our story).  And I knew that the actions would require a disorienting shift within our society — confronting the gap between what we say we condone, and what is in fact rampantly present.

But today I wept, reading this woman’s statement, to see just how far we are from closing that gap.

Why is progress on this painfully clear human-rights challenge so slow?  What is the difference, say, between progressing here, versus progressing on gay marriage?  Not that justice for gays didn’t take eons; it did, and continues to.  But, on the issue of gay marriage, from the moment when people began speaking out, began really grappling with it and openly arguing about it — from that moment, the change came with remarkable speed.

We are nowhere near that on rape — not really speaking out loudly enough to be heard, not really grappling, still not really arguing about it.  Those societal “Tsk’s” when yet another athletic program is revealed not to have taken sexual assault seriously? That’s not grappling.  That’s closer, by far, to sighing that “boys will be boys.”

This administration has tried to deal seriously with sexual assault on campus.  Countless brave women have spoken out in the years  since Ziegenmeyer refused to remain in the shadows prescribed for those who have been raped. Yet here we are, far indeed from the grappling, from the serious arguments about the need for change. Far from confronting the everyday reality, far from holding people accountable, far from forcing those opposing change to make their arguments about why this deep injustice should continue.

The only thing I can think to say is that this will change when women’s voices are heard against rape, the way gay voices were heard for marriage.  So I guess that puts me back where I was, a quarter of a century ago, believing, as I wrote then, in a column that triggered the Register series:

“I urge women who have suffered this awful crime and attendant injustice to speak out, as some are beginning to do, and identify themselves.

“Rape is an American shame. Our society needs to see that and attend to it, not hide it or hush it up. As long as rape is deemed unspeakable – and is therefore not fully and honestly spoken of – the public outrage will be muted as well.”



On Rape and the Power of Speaking Out:”  I am adding today to my site a page to bring together pieces I have written and other resources on the issue.









At the Rumble in the Jungle — and hanging with Ali

Here was a heavyweight fight for the ages, and I was sitting in the second row. It was 4 a.m. in Kinshasa – timed to suit American television viewers – on October 30, 1974, and the sweat of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali was hitting me directly in the face.

The then-president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Mobutu Sese Seko, had lured the two to Kinshasa to help put his country on the map. It worked. I was a few weeks into a two-year stay in Kinshasa when the famous began to arrive: entertainers like B. B. King and Miriam Makeba, writers like George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer.

And of course the fighters themselves. Ali had beaten Foreman to Zaire, and quickly worked his charm on the people. He got off the plane, bent to kiss the ground, and declared himself “Glad to be in the land of the brother.” By the time Foreman flew in, the waiting crowd was already yelling, “Ali, boma ye!” (“Kill him, Ali!”).

Then a sparring partner cut Foreman above his eye, and the fight was postponed for six weeks. Foreman was reclusive, but Ali often left his villa to go running, and occasionally to hang out at café/bars – even a couple of times with a few of us teachers from the American School of Kinshasa. We’d drink that good Belgian beer (Ali drank Orange Fanta) and talk about things back home. One day, Ali stopped the conversation to complain that the delay was dragging on too long. “To hell with the land of the brother,” he said to us. “Take me back to the land of the MUTHAH!”

The main thing I remember about the fight itself is that what Ali called his rope-a-dope technique meant that he was regularly leaning back over the ropes above us, taking hit after hit. And I remember feeling astonished at how he seemed to surge with strength at the moment he knocked out Foreman, the heavy favorite and the reigning champion.

After the fight we went back to the Intercontinental Hotel, where most of the visiting foreigners had been staying. The postponement  had had everyone fearing for weeks that the outdoor fight would have to be cancelled because of the imminent arrival of the rainy season (rains in Zaire are rains of a different order). But the season had held off – until just after the fight.  As we gathered for the after-party in the Intercontinental’s courtyard, the winds swept in, the palms swayed, and thunder and lightning were loosed.

It was this Intercontinental bar that had been the journalists’ hangout – especially Plimpton’s and Mailer’s.  Over the weeks, I’d had a couple of rounds with Mailer, thumb wrestling and talking about writing. One night, I gave him some pieces I’d written. The next time I saw him, he told me my problem was that I was too “protean.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but he was exactly right. The Rumble in the Jungle was one ineradicable memory in a rich and scattered life.

Election 2016: A tough test for journalism, and the midterm grades aren’t good

The 2016 presidential campaign is handing journalism an extraordinary challenge: How to deal with so many remarkable developments — a mold-breaking Republican front-runner, a former first lady in the lead for the Democrats, an extremely volatile electorate — all at a time of disruption for news organizations.

Given the importance of this election, trying to figure out what is happening in time for some mid-course correction feels critical. Toward that goal, here are a few thoughts about some of the factors at play:

1. All Trump, much of the time.

The catnip of Donald Trump’s candidacy has been irresistible to the media, resulting in coverage that is unprecedentedly cockeyed. As a recent New York Times article put it, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”

This chart, from the Times article, shows how utterly out-of-whack Trump’s “free-media” coverage has been:

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This constant coverage – even of the outrages (maybe especially of the outrages, in Trump’s case) — has undeniably served to elevate him above all others.
Continue reading Election 2016: A tough test for journalism, and the midterm grades aren’t good

The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

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As part of the University at Buffalo’s International Education Week, I gave a keynote address about what’s happening in the media world today — what we’re losing, what we’re gaining, and what the students ought to do about it.  I urged the students to “seize the opportunity to make contributions.  And take responsibility for the contributions you make.”

Here is the text:

University at Buffalo, International Education week, November 2015

“The Media Revolution: What It Means for You”

It’s a pleasure for me to be here as part of International Education Week. And I’m especially delighted that you have made media your focus. Nothing could be more essential to an understanding of this fast-globalizing world than media.

You know, we say that we are what we eat. More generally, we are what we consume. And that surely goes for media. Our media diet, like our food diet, shapes us every day – for good and for ill. If we select wisely, we nourish ourselves and contribute to good health. If we choose junk, we pay for it. Moreover, our society pays for it. Just as the nation’s health and economy are affected when people eat poorly, our democracy is undermined when people fail to nourish their understanding of the world around them. A government of the people, by the people and for the people is only as good as the thinking and participation OF the people. A democracy of know-nothings will get what it deserves: poor public policy, an inability to progress, a loss of international standing. You, individually, are part of the recipe for good health – for yourself, and for the society of which you are a part.

Continue reading The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Below is the text of a speech I delivered at Florida International University University yesterday.  You can find a Storify look at the event here — and a video soon will be archived there as well. Video and text will also be available through FIU and the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center sites.

Leading from the Outside: Rethinking Journalism Leadership When Change is the New Normal

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Reis, for that warm introduction. And special thanks to the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center – and to Lillian herself, for bringing me here. I am honored indeed to be part of your Hearst Distinguished Lecture Series.

I hope to present to you today the much-discussed topic of the future of journalism in a very different way.

My goal is to sketch out for you a media future that offers real promise to make our world a better place. A media future that could make informing ourselves more compelling, that could engage people in civic life and nourish our communities. It could make people believe in the possibilities of self-government, and cause them to feel hopeful about the future of our democracy.

Continue reading Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Some fairness, please

The press is right to cover assiduously Hillary’s email controversy. And NOT right not to cover her important UN speech! See the fine piece here, which I found only after searching arduously for anything about the speech amid the clamor about the email:

I must note, this brings up an unhappy memory. Twenty years ago, when Clinton gave her Beijing speech on the topic of women’s rights, I was ombudsman at the Washington Post. And I got a call from a staffer of Hillary’s– Lissa Muscatine, now an owner of the bookstore Politics and Prose in DC — saying that, while the coverage of the speech was terrific (and it was — noting that this was the first truly important foreign policy speech given by a First Lady), the paper had incorrectly printed accompanying excerpts from different remarks she had given that day, to a much smaller crowd, on abortion rights. Thus, the coverage touted the importance of the speech, and the printed remarks were from another address entirely.

I said I was sure the foreign desk would want to correct it, especially since the record would otherwise be wrong. She said she had already talked to them, and they had declined. Astonished, I talked to the foreign editor myself, and found him tenacioiusly resistant. Only after considerable back and forth did he reluctantly publish a “clarification,” not a correction. Such resistance to being fair about women’s words remains, clearly, today (as does that editor, at the Post — Jackson Diehl, now with the oped page.) This surely must change. It’s against the press’s own interest (not to mention the nation’s) to be so blind to fairness.

Her campaigning for women’s rights, and her efforts to explain her emails, shows how tricky it is to be Hillary.|By Nina Burleigh

Old media bio, new media gusto!