Does Journalism Still Have a Future?
Sanders Theatre was more than packed to the brim Tuesday afternoon. The line of students waiting to get into “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” sponsored by President Drew Faust’s office trailed through the snowy Science Center plaza and spilled into an overflow room in the basement. Members of the Harvard community were clearly eager to hear from media practitioners about the future of the news in an age in which the sitting president of the United States and some of his senior advisers openly attacked reporters and discouraged media outlets from publishing dissenting opinions.
The event, co-sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, featured a panel discussion, punctuated before and after by stories about the practice of journalism from Kathleen Kingsbury, managing editor for digital content at The Boston Globe; William Kristol, A.B ‘73, editor at large of The Weekly Standard; and Lolly Bowean, a 2017 Nieman Fellow and writer at The Chicago Tribune.
Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, began the lively discussion by noting, “We are, in all our media, a nation screaming past each other”—making it difficult to listen to dissenting opinions, and almost impossible to understand where people on the other side of the aisle are coming from. That divide helped make the 2016 election cycle one of the most polarizing in this nation’s history. Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, said, “We’re seeing a collapse of empathy in journalism…the problem this election cycle wasn’t that we didn’t write about them [Americans who voted for Donald Trump], it’s that we didn’t write for them.” Polgreen emphasized the need for journalism to remind readers of its blue collar roots by explaining its methods and goals more clearly. Only then, she argued, will the industry seem less like an elite club that caters only to small, affluent subsets of New England, the tristate New York area, or the Bay area of coastal California.
All the panelists talked about the importance of truth-seeking in quality journalism — and acknowledged that this kind of work requires resources that many outlets don’t have. The challenge, then, is to find a way to get well-endowed publications with relatively greater reporting resources like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to capture subscribers who have been flocking to smaller, more partisan outlets for their news, because they haven’t found a voice that represents them in major outlets. Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal said, “Over the last few decades, we’ve been watching an erosion of trust in so many institutions of civil society, including government, big business, church, and journalism…almost every institution, except for the military.” While it’s unlikely that journalists will ever enjoy the kind of sustained popularity that the military has, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt talked about the value of gaining subscribers over mere online clicks, as well as the importance of forming trusting relationships with readers by putting reporters on the ground, where they can do extensive legwork and reporting to get a piece right. Optimistically, Leonhardt argued that this kind of hard work is what readers crave and need to start trusting the news again.
Photograph by Lydia Carmichael/Harvard Magazine
The panelists also supported a surprisingly optimistic view of social media. At the start of the event, Kristol cautioned those who blame social media for the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and said, “I’m not a friend of those who say that in the good old days, there couldn’t have been a Trump…we had a Joe McCarthy, and similar politicians back in those days, too.” He characterized social media as “a healthy but not unproblematic development,” and invited the audience to challenge falsehoods right as they take off online. Later in the evening, Leonhardt reminded the audience, “In the past, an article that got something wrong would take days to correct, and that falsehood would be out there for a while. Now, readers can more easily tell the media when we get something wrong.”
While optimism was woven through the questions posed throughout the event, there were also clear calls to action to keep journalists committed to one of their main jobs, which the Globe’s Kathleen Kingsbury reminded the audience is “to keep the powerful accountable.” CNN’s Brian Stelter injected a warning into that call for action, saying, “We need to think of the worst-case scenarios right now. Journalists must have their eyes wide open.”
None of the speakers appeared to be under the impression that the process of re-establishing trust between the news and the American people would be simple, and tied the phenomenon to broader trends in civic engagement. Polgreen said, “It’s our country, it’s our responsibility to go and take action…People aren’t thinking about their role in civic life anymore. It’s not journalism’s job to fix that, but we can help.” But at the end of the panel, the lingering feeling was less fear for the future or regret about the past and more a sense of empowerment. Journalists from some of the world’s leading publications were encouraging the audience to hold journalism to the highest standard and to use technology’s fact-checking ability to constantly better the quality of discourse.
“Pay for what’s good, tell us what works and what doesn’t,” said David Leonhardt. “You all have your own printing presses. We do listen.”