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Death of the News?

03/02/2010 5:30 PM Wong Auditorium
Maria Balinska, Nieman Fellow, Harvard University (on leave from BBC); Susan Glasser, Executive Editor, Foreign Policy; Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher, Technology Review

Description: While not dead, the U.S. news industry is severely depleted and likely to diminish further, these panelists agree. But they also believe that something vibrant and enduring might emerge from this period of digital disruption.

Moderator Jason Pontin sets the stage with his "dolorous and long toll" of newspapers and magazines that have gone bankrupt, or cling to life as their subscriptions and ad revenues fall. He nevertheless invites panelists to make the case for journalism's survival.

Susan Glasser declares herself "a total convert to the idea that this transformation heralds potentially an enormous golden age for people who care about informationtransparency, knowledge, about going to places in the world you couldn't get to in the past except with enormous difficulty" While this shift has just gotten started, with producers adapting print and TV information rather than originating content for digital media, changes are coming rapidly.

Glasser's own Foreign Policy website grew 500% in a single year ("without spending a single dollar in marketing"), attracting enormous numbers of users "interested at a sophisticated level." Social media help drive users to the site, and suggest to Glasser an audience of millions for comparable specialized and nuanced content. But she does not believe that her audience, interactive as it may be, will displace seasoned journalists who labor in difficult circumstances to collect, analyze and report the news.

U.K."based radio journalist Maria Balinska concurs that reporters are irreplaceable: "Maybe journalism is not rocket science, but to tell a story well, with context, facts, is quite difficult. Good novelists don't walk the streets everywhere, and a good story is something that will engage our audience." The key to survival in the digital age will involve using new tools to capture "the many different publics," especially those who might have been alienated by a partisan or corrupt"appearing media.

Balinska is "convinced there is a hunger for understanding the world around us." She wants to engage different audiences through a "partnership model," where users inform the journalistic process. She believes journalism should rediscover what is valuable, and look back to small"town newspapers, which helped create community. She also notes that elsewhere in the world, old and new forms of journalism are thriving: in Britain, daily national newspapers achieve circulations in the millions, and in Colombia, the population consumes its news via mobile phones.

Pontin concludes that "fretfulness about the death of news may be a uniquely American perspective." While the current business model is failing in the U.S. -- "news has declining value relative to time" -- Pontin believes there is a "form of journalism people will pay for." The criteria for success include offering a unique mission that's uniquely smart ("don't fib to yourself); helping users with a decision "that is core to self"identity;" and being beautifully designed. "If you say those four things, you can charge for it."

About the Speaker(s): Jason Pontin also serves as the publisher of Technology Review, overseeing all aspects of the company's business. In previous posts, he was editor of Red Herring, editor in chief of The Acumen Journal, and wrote a regular column for the Sunday New York Times, "Slipstream," about new ideas in technology. He has also written for The Economist, The Financial Times, Wired, and The Believer, among others, and is a frequent guest on television and radio, including ABC News, CNN, and NPR.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for International Studies

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