24 April 2008

The Future of the News Business and VOA

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the future of journalism. The big question is: can the current purveyors of news in its traditional forms --- especially newspapers --- survive in an Internet world?

A fascinating read on this comes from Nicholas Carr, author and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review who has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, Wired, and many other publications.
Carr recently wrote in the Britannica Blogs:

“So if you’re a beleaguered publisher, losing readers and money and facing Wall Street’s wrath, what are you going do as you shift your content online? Hire more investigative journalists? Or publish more articles about consumer electronics? It seems clear that as newspapers adapt to the economics of the Web, they are far more likely to continue to fire reporters than hire new ones.

“Speaking before the Online Publishing Association in 2006, the head of the New York Times’s Web operation, Martin Nisenholtz, summed up the dilemma facing newspapers today. He asked the audience a simple question: 'How do we create high quality content in a world where advertisers want to pay by the click, and consumers don’t want to pay at all? The answer may turn out to be equally simple: We don’t.'”

Carr is not alone in his grim assessment. Jay Rosen is a teacher of journalism at New York University and the author of PressThink, a weblog about journalism.

Rosen recently suggested it is an urgent problem:

“I think he’s (Carr) right… The fact that we could lose something makes it somewhat urgent. It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods, the future production of which is in doubt, are still at the stage of asking other people, 'How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?' Recently I heard one such person say, 'Society should be worried about this!'”

What struck us about this discussion is the possibility that commercially-funded serious news-oriented journalism outlets might soon become things of the past, possibly leaving publicly-funded news organizations like VOA alone to provide serious news that people ought to know.

VOA, as we have said here before, is unique in that it has a legal Charter obliging it to present accurate, objective and comprehensive news. In fact, we often tell visitors who come to our offices in Washington that we believe VOA is one of the few remaining practitioners of what one might call “pure journalism” in a media world that is increasingly characterized by commentary, attitude, argument, gossip and celebrity.

VOA needs, in our view, to work harder than ever to build on its legacy of being a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news --- especially if the future of the commercial news business seems anything but bright.

For if VOA fails to continue to provide “pure” news, then we will all be the worse off. We are reminded of what legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said in a controversial 1958 speech to broadcast executives about the use of television:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

Think about it. And let us know what you think.

One final thought on why we believe this is an important matter for all audiences. It comes from the thoughtful book The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel:

“The issue isn't just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”

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