Panel weighs in on future of journalism in the digital age

Five distinguished journalists discussed the future of journalism in today’s multimedia-dominated world in a panel titled “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Print World” on Saturday night in Griffin 3. Thomas B. Edsall, Elizabeth Kolbert, Shayla Harris ’97, Christopher “Kit” Jones ’62 and John Kifner ’63 analyzed the current trends in print journalism and possible outcomes. The event also featured the announcement of the first recipient of the newly established Jeffrey Owen Jones ’66 Fellowship in Journalism, Molly Hunter ’09.

The forum commenced with an introduction by Peter Koenig ’66. Koenig, a successful journalist in the field of business investigation, presented the story of his close friend, journalist Jeffrey Jones. Koenig described Jones as not only an accomplished professional but also as an “anti-careerist in the age of careerism.”

Koenig also presented the moderator of the forum, Christopher “Kit” Jones, Jeffrey Jones’ brother and long-time television anchor and investigative reporter. The first question Jones raised for the panelists was, “Is there a future for journalism without newspapers?”

According to Edsall, the Pulitzer Professor of Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School and correspondent for The Huffington Post, The New Republic and The National Journal, there is. Edsall was adamant that there is an extraordinary interest in the news. According to him, the major problem lies in the fact that millions of people get news from the Web site versions of various printed issues. “News is free,” Edsall said, “and we should try to monetize it.”

Kolbert, who writes for The New Yorker, was more hopeful, saying that once the economy recovers, advertising will recover, too, and magazines will regain their subscribers. She admitted, however, that advertisers have a lot of different venues to advertise, so at the moment “all arrows are pointing in the wrong direction.”

Video journalist for the New York Times Harris, on the other hand, presented a different point of view. She explained that the increasing popularity of printed issues’ Web sites is giving news “a new platform.” News sites reach out easily to the young audience but are also more accessible to the international public, she said.

Jones then invited Kifner, “the eyewitness when there were no eyewitnesses” of the New York Times, to “look forward from looking back.” Kifner attributed the current stagnation in printed press to the breaking of “the housing bubble,” which led to a collapse in the economy and a subsequent decline in advertising.

However, he and Jones agreed that this is not the first time for such an economic downfall. Jones said that a similar crisis occurred in the ’70s, during a time when only a few major newspapers and TV stations existed, without cable or Internet. Jones quoted that currently only 16 percent of Americans under the age of 30 read the newspaper every day. “There is no news habit in the new generation,” Jones said. He then asked the other participants, “Do people not care anymore?”

Kifner quoted a survey that determined that people spend an average of 35 minutes per month reading over the New York Times Web site. “People read in a very narrow fashion,” he concluded. Harris rivaled this proposition, admitting that she does not read the newspaper every day but still considers herself informed. “I read blogs, the Web. I listen to the radio and get my information from different places,” she explained.

The conversation then turned to the problem of newspapers’ political affiliations. Edsall said that the political trend is explicit in TV channels such as FOX and MSNBC but newspapers, such as The Huffington Post, are also steadily leaning toward left or right. “The market is driving the media toward ideological ends and – the general polarization in politics is replicated in the media,” Edsall lamented. Kolbert defined the phenomenon as a “return to our historical roots: the partisan press,” which she labeled as a “dangerous situation.”

The journalists then answered questions from the eager audience. On the question, “Should the press use government support?” the journalists were adamant that such a relationship would be “unhealthy” because it is the duty of the press to “dislike” and doubt politicians. To the suggestion that reading as a form of entertainment and getting information is disappearing, Harris responded that people are looking for “the experience” that multimedia offers.

The journalists and the audience discussed a number of possible solutions to the print crisis: a flat rate for reading any article on the Web and the extensive use of electronic devices, among others. According to Harris, there are solutions. “All forms may exists together – all of us will have a future,” she concluded.