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Hopeful signs may buoy nation’s free press

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Gene Policinski
April 16, 2011

Maybe it’s the influence of springtime, but with the change of seasons there seem to be positive signs of a renewal of spirit in the nation’s free press.


In a meeting of the nation’s top news editors in San Diego, and at a panel discussion at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., experts this week expressed new hopes about the future of journalism—citing new technology and new approaches to funding news operations.


In part, the positive signs may be amplified because they come after years of negative news and forecasts about the future of traditional news media: major reductions in staffing, the failure of long-profitable business models based on a once virtually assured combination of circulation and advertising, and reader defections from print, radio and television to exotic new-tech devices.


Change was in the whirlwind, and some feared it would sweep clean the news media landscape—laying waste to the Fourth Estate that the nation’s Founders saw as a vital watchdog on government policies, practices and performance.


The Web-based transformation of how we get news and information continues—with some significant checkpoints emerging:


--From new publications aimed at mobile devices such as smart phones and I-Pad tablets, pay-to-view “pay walls” are debuting—most notably in recent days at The New York Times. The plans nudge readers back toward a traditional system of paying for news, and may just nudge the bottom line for news operations back toward more-positive figures.


--Layoffs that disrupted news coverage and newsrooms are ebbing. A survey reported to the American Society of News Editors recently showed that newsroom-employment figures have stabilized if not crept up a minuscule amount after nearly a decade of major cutbacks.


--Entries in the annual Scripps Foundation National Journalism Awards in February showed the impact and value of blending old-fashioned “accountability journalism” with new technology to make the news more accessible and understandable. Detailed reports on the government response to the financial crisis; an analysis of post-9/11 security; and a multimedia report on gun sales in a Washington, D.C., suburb—to name just three—offered vital information through traditional stories and photos combined with new-tech data presentation.


--Less well defined but nonetheless observable is a renewed sense of purpose and improved outlook among journalists at both traditional and new news media. At ASNE’s recent meeting, and in a seminar at Southern Illinois, part of the national “1 for All” initiative to educate Americans about the First Amendment, editors and experts expressed a tough survivors’ view of the future. (Note: I was a participant in both ventures, not just an observer.)


“If you still are around in this business after all we’ve been through, you know how to get things done with fewer people and a smaller budget,” said one editor at ASNE. “I’m tired of focusing all the time on how to survive. I know now how to do that—what we’re doing now is finding new and better ways to do our job.”


My First Amendment Center colleague Ken Paulson, on taking over as ASNE president, looked forward as well: “Our most diverse, inclusive and innovative years are still ahead if we couple the passion of our past with the engagement and inventiveness we embrace today.”


At SIU, discussion started with how to hold journalists accountable—but morphed into an analysis of where traditional and new media are headed. One veteran journalist who now helps others start new media ventures was upbeat about journalism without dismissing its recent contractions. She referred to a news “renaissance” including hyper-local websites that focus on city neighborhoods.


If one thing is certain in a free-press world turned upside down by technology and economics, it is that nothing is certain. Readers accustomed to nearly two decades of “free news” may balk at even micropayments for high-quality reporting. I-Pads may just be I-fads, not the ultimate new way to stay informed. But getting news and information is now easier than ever, and more of it is available—literally at our fingertips.


Winston Churchill’s reassurances to his beleaguered British countrymen in 1942 may well apply to the news media as they transform into 21st century news operations: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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