Challenges to Journalism Pervade Nieman Anniversary Celebration

To past and present Nieman Fellows celebrating the program’s 70th anniversary last weekend, keynote speaker Leonard Downie Jr. defined cyberspace as the new battleground for struggles over journalism’s ethics and morals and predicted that some mainstream media outlets won’t survive the “Darwinian” battle for revenue.

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“We got off to a slow start (with new media) and we’re playing catch-up. We’re struggling (at The Washington Post) and we’ll have to change a lot to come up with must-read journalism,” said Downie, now a Post vice president after 17 years as its executive editor. “How to finance good journalism is our most important question. Our mission is to come up with a viable answer to that.”

Just days after Barack Obama won the presidential election, panelists also discussed how his administration and the press would deal with each other, predicting better relations than with the Bush administration but noting Obama’s strict message control during the campaign.

Since 1938, the Nieman Foundation’s mission has been to give mid-career journalists a year at Harvard to learn and explore. And many of them at the Nov. 8 conference in Cambridge, Mass., said the chance to leave the deadline grind to read a poem, study social policy or discussing the craft with international colleagues has greatly enriched their reporting. Such opportunities are more valuable now than ever.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to step back and reflect, as journalism has shattered into a food fight” that values attitude over opinion, said Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. The capacity to think is so at risk now with blogs and Tweets that reporters often have to react without time to absorb information. “The ability to think through something,” she said, “hasn’t sped up.”

New technology has its benefits, said Downie, including better research tools, more multimedia forms with greater impact and more checks on accuracy. “Large, brand-name news organizations,” he said, “are still important as sources and verifiers of news in this freestyle digital world.”

Downie advocated transparency and ethics among all platforms. “All journalists should accurately identify themselves. It drives me crazy” when this isn’t done on the Web, he said. And audiences should know who finances digital information, posters should either disclose or avoid conflicts of interests, and there should be “no doctored photos or video.”

At a conference that heard several plans for niche journalism, Downie said he sees opportunities for specialized reporting that targets certain reader segments and draws advertisers and subscribers. He added that there’s a “philanthropic interest in saving parts of journalism” such as health reporting.

To succeed in the new media environment, two speakers said journalists should abandon the traditional notion that they “own” information.

Joshua Benton, a former prizewinning Dallas Morning News writer who at the Nieman Journalism Lab now helps reporters adapt to the online environment, said, “For too long newspapers have fetishisized their distance from their audience. For so long we’ve pushed them away.”

Instead, he said, we should bring them closer. For example, an investigative reporter seeking information on school conditions can post questions on a blog and get valuable responses from students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Michael Skoler, founder of Public Insight Journalism, a model that tries to create partnerships between the press and its audience, said news consumers now expect to share information and have a conversation with the press. “We’ve been expert-driven, but people believe that knowledge is collective,” he said. “The old journalism model was owning information, but the more you link and share, the more it comes back to you.”

Skoler, who is also executive director of the Center for Innovation in Journalism, acknowledged, “We’re in a (financial) mess and we’re trying to see our way through the mess. … The bad news is that we don’t know our role in incredibly uncertain times. We’ve supported journalism through classified ads; our economic model is based on people not paying for journalism, (but) if journalists don’t lead the revolution, the bean counters will. … We’ll find a business model — if we’re involved.”

The closing panel predicted better relations with the Obama White House but noted the president-elect’s tight control over the media.

John Walcott, McClatchy Co.’s Washington bureau chief, said Obama has exerted “extraordinary control” over news about his transition team, “as if they’ve signed a ‘loyalty oath’ of silence. It will be difficult for us to cover a man who made history. It’s hard not to buy into his ‘hope’ theme; it’ll be a challenge.”

Earlier this year, Walcott won the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence for leading probing, skeptical coverage of the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq war. His Knight Ridder (the chain McClatchy later bought) team’s 2002 series used many midlevel sources, something he expanded on at the conference.

“The cult of access is a fatal trap” when covering the White House, he said. Although reporters may think their sources’ value equals their rank, he said the opposite is true.

Jeanne Cumming, a Politico reporter formerly with The Wall Street Journal, said a good relationship with the press will buy the new administration time. That will be important when the inevitable policy change happens. This shift, she said, can be portrayed either as a “broken promise” or a “tough choice.”

“Obama doesn’t ‘game’ the press,” she said. Most reporters had very little access to him as a candidate, so he hasn’t built the relationships that George W. Bush did, with nicknames.

She thinks the press should pay careful attention to how the president-elect uses his massive grassroots base, guessing that the Obama administration “may circumvent journalists and break news through e-mail to those millions” of supporters.

John Harwood, chief political correspondent from MSNBC and a New York Times political writer, said,  “We’ll start with a more congenial relationship with Obama and his team” than with the Bush administration, partially because the president-elect is “more open to ideas.”

Eventually, however, “We’ll have to cover the collision between hope and reality.”

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