I’m worried. Specifically I’m worried about what the seeming freefall the newspaper industry is in means long term for journalism, also known as good old fashioned reporting.
Hardly a week goes by that there isn’t some news about another negative in the industry, another projection for declining ad revenues, another report of lost circulation, another drop in the stock price of media companies.
And this frequently is followed by more announcements of layoffs and other expense cuts, which begs the question: how deep can you cut before hitting an artery and bleeding out?
The situation is not pretty. In fact, it’s pretty ugly. Commenting on the state of the industry recently, the CEO of a major news organization told me the situation has gone from “dire to survival.” There are media watchers who fully expect some metropolitan newspapers to go out of business. The same for some television stations. And even the AP is up against a growing string of newspapers who are giving notice that they will not renew their existing contracts with the wire service.
With such gloomy news it’s easy to engage in some woe-is-us hand wringing. But I was jolted into a much brighter and inspirational side of the business last night at the annual International Center for Journalists awards dinner at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. The program, as Bob Dubill, who retired as executive editor of USA Today, noted, “reminds us of why we got into the business in the first place.”
Three journalists were honored for their selfless dedication to the profession of journalism, but more importantly, to informing the citizenry about subjects for which they should care.
Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, during her keynote address quoted the words of CBS’ legendary former news head, Fred W. Friendly, when she said, “Our job is not to make up anybody’s mind, but make the agony of decision-making so intense you can escape only by thinking.” And Friendly is credited with quoting Walter Lipmann who said, “The purpose of journalism is to give information on which the citizen can act.”
It is that spirit that makes the two recipients of the Knight International Journalism Awards so inspirational.
Aliaksei Karol, is the 63-year-old editor-in-chief of the weekly Novy Chas in Belarus, a former Soviet republic. For 16 years, Karol championed democratic values and ideals while taking to task the leaders of Belarus, including the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, referred to as Europe’s last dictator. During that time Karol has suffered physical attacks and government suppression. In 2002 he suffered a concussion when he was hit from behind as he returned from a forum of democratic activists in Lithuania. He awoke in a pool of blood. Karol’s first newspaper, Zgoda, which he founded in 1992 was quashed in 2006 by the government. In 2007 Karol launched Novy Chas, a weekly and continued his watchdog journalism over the authoritarian government of Belarus. Last year a member of the country’s parliament and a Lukashenko ally, sued the paper for defamation and won $23,500 in damages, which is an enormous sum for a paper in Belarus. International donations helped Karol pay the damages and Novy Chas continues to publish.
Frank Nyakairu of Uganda is a correspondent for Reuters and The Independent magazine. He also has been a reporter for the Daily Monitor of Kampala. Nyakairu has made his mark chronicling human rights abuses, including genocide and rape and other atrocities in his own country of Uganda, as well as southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. His reporting includes war crimes and abuses in detention centers in northern Uganda, all the while ignoring potential risk to himself. In 2002, the 30-year-old Nyakairu so outraged authorities that they raided the Monitor and shut it down for several days. At the same time, authorities arrested Nyakairu for threatening national security. Eventually the charges were dropped. Nyakairu also is chairman of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters. Its work includes probing international trafficking in human beings, drugs and weapons. He also coaches younger journalists to be the next story tellers.
The stories of these two men are extraordinary not only for what they have accomplished, but also for the fact that they have done it in the harshest of circumstances against the longest of odds. They have but one mission - to inform the citizenry by telling the truth.
As I sat with others in the audience that was in excess of 500 people, I felt a deep pride in the profession for which I was a practitioner for 35 years before accepting a buyout in January from USA Today, my employer of 24 years. As Bob Dubill said, their stories remind us of why we got into the business in the first place.
Steve Komarow, a former colleague at USA Today who now is deputy bureau chief for the AP in Washington, picked up on that theme in a conversation we had during the dinner break. Komarow reflected on the correspondents he was fortunate to work with in his previous position as senior deputy international editor at AP headquarters in New York. He talked about the correspondents in various hot spots around the world willing to risk their own safety to report on events so they can inform the citizenry.
“My god,” Komarow said, “who wouldn’t want to be a part of that.”
Then it was time to hear from John F. Burns, the London bureau chief for The New York Times and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of strife in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Burns was honored with the ICFJ Founders Award for Excellence in Journalism. He has traveled the world for the NYT reporting the world’s events from New Delhi, Toronto, Moscow, Johannesburg, Beijing, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Kabul, Islamabad and Baghdad. During his reporting from Beijing, he was jailed by the Chinese and accused of espionage. Eventually he was deported to Hong Kong and the Chinese apologized.
During his acceptance speech, the 64-year-old Burns spoke eloquently about the profession he has served and the organization he has worked for. But the Brit by birth saved his most glowing words for the United States and the beacon of enlightenment the country’s legacy of a free press is for the rest of the world. Christiane Amanpour referred to the U.S. as the shining city on the hill that the rest of the world looks up to.
I recently was elected to the board of directors of the Durango (Colorado) Herald publishing company and last night sat next to Jim Greenhill, the lead reporter on a Herald series that won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service and who now is on assignment with the National Guard. We also had in common the fact that we both worked for the Gannett-owned Fort Myers News-Press about 10 years apart. We reminisced about what a hard-charging, go-get-them newsroom it had been, always challenging local government officials to make sure the local citizenry was informed. We agreed that it was good to have been part of that.
Then, as the evening wrapped up the feeling of pride was being edged aside by a sense of concern. During the drive to my home in the suburbs of Virginia, the reality of the challenges facing the industry took hold. There are bound to be more layoff announcements and more newsroom staff reductions at newspapers across the country. I began to wonder about how newspapers in this country would be able to carry on the great reporting we heard about tonight. Certainly the national newspapers likes USA Today, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post would continue to do so. And certainly the Associated Press would continue having reporters in the world’s hot spots.
But what about the likes of the Fort Myers News-Press, which has closed its regional Southwest Florida bureaus and faces a round of layoffs? How will they practice the hard-charging journalism to inform the local citizenry? And what about the growing line of newspapers deciding not to renew their Associated Press contracts? Where will these papers get their national and international news? How will these newspapers go about their mission of informing the citizenry?
The challenges confronting the industry are enormous. Traditional business models are under siege from a host of economic forces. Publicly held media companies are scrambling to meet earnings expectations in the face of declining revenues. The Internet is held out as everything from villain to savior. In reality, the Internet is just a delivery platform. Albeit a potentially engaging and dynamic platform to enhance a reader’s experience, but a delivery platform nonetheless. The same as print is a delivery platform. Neither would be of much value without content. And for newspapers, whether delivered by print or digitally, the content starts with the journalism, the original reporting that makes sense of the day’s events and informs the citizenry.
So, while I am inspired by the work of Aliaksei Karol and Frank Nyakairu and John Burns, I’m also worried. I worry about the future of journalism. In the wake of a presidential campaign laced with lies and half truths, I worry about who will inform the citizenry.
Who, in the end, will speak truth to power?
Gary Hook was Director of Editorial Operations at USA Today and worked at other Gannett newspapers in positions ranging from reporter to managing editor.