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Transforming Journalism: The State of the News Media 2010

On March 29, 2010, the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs in association with the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism hosted an event in which panelists discussed PEJ’s recently released “State of the News Media 2010” report.

Moderator: Frank Sesno, Director, GWU School of Media and Public Affairs: Opening Presentation: Tom Rosenstiel, Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center Panelists: Jim Brady, President, Digital Strategies, Allbritton Communications Tina Brown, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, The Daily Beast Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today Charlie Sennott, Executive Editor, GlobalPost Antoine Sanfuentes, Deputy Washington D.C. Bureau Chief, NBC News

In the following edited transcript, ellipses have been omitted to facilitate reading. Find the full transcript and a video of the event at the SMPA website.


 Frank Sesno


[so that]

Tom Rosenstiel: In the next few minutes what I’m going to try and do is summarize the 700 plus pages that are in the State of the News Media report but hopefully advance it a little bit and tee up the conversation that’s going to follow. So I’m going to start with what’s happening but hopefully pivot into where things are going.

 Tom Rosenstiel

The first thing to recognize is that the problem in old media for the most part is more of a revenue problem than an audience problem. Look at these numbers: 26% down in revenue in 2009 for newspapers, 24% for local TV, 19% in ad revenue from magazines. Now look at the audience numbers: there are drops but they are not nearly as severe. And in some of them I mean online revenue was down but online audiences are up. So the notion that people are abandoning traditional media outlets and that audience fragmentation is at the heart of this is not really it. What it is, more simply, is that the audience is migrating online, often to traditional outlets, but advertisers are not following them. We could spend a lot of time telling about why online advertising isn’t working but we’ll gloss over that now.



[around a single story]

At the same time we have new news competitors coming in to fill the space, the void that they see created by the decline in traditional reportorial media. Just in the last year we’ve seen a host of partisan groups — is a group that’s in a number of states that’s funded by a libertarian anti-government group. It’s very hard to find that out when you go to their websites. They are quite clear that they don’t think that they need to be clear about where the financing comes from; they’ve hired trained journalists to do the work but it’s very hard to know what’s behind that work.

 Transforming Journalism


The other thing that we are seeing clearly is that the power is shifting to news makers and one of the things that’s making this happen is the tendency towards immediately. Things are posted very quickly. Old media are making rapid use of new media technology and while the new technology could offer us a potential for infinite depth it also offers the potential for instant speed. And what we’ve seen in some of our studies is that the press release that’s authored by the news-making agency, the government agency or whoever, is often adapted very briefly, or very hastily and reposted by a news organization as a kind of quick story. And that moves and sort of establishes a baseline of what people understand about that event. But it’s much closer to a press release than what was published in the newspaper a few years ago.


[media have]




Then we asked that group — the group we would think most likely to be loyal — whether they would pay for their favorite site; only 15% said they would. If you add in the ones who already do pay, which is a very small number who go the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, that number goes up to 19% but it’s still not a very big number and it’s certainly well below the 10% that many news organizations estimate would pay. Now I don’t know that this means that it can’t happen. It just means that right at the moment people are not accustomed to paying and they are going to be initially resistant to it.



The key to all of this is going to be understanding the new news consumer. How do people get news? What is brand? What’s the difference between commodity news and franchise news — commodity news being news you can find in a lot of places, franchise news being news you can only find at that one news organization?

 Tom Rosenstiel



One big question is whether people now are going to just the subjects and the things they are interested in, sort of migrating to fragmented specialized areas and places that they agree with. The answer appears to be — both in traffic data and in survey data — that that’s not what’s happening. That the idea of accidentally coming across things that you didn’t know you were interested in still lives. It’s a smaller part of our media consumption, but 34% of people say that describes them best and actually the traffic data would suggest those numbers may be even higher.

[People & the Press survey]

Chris Sterling: Now it’s time to turn to the panel that will be moderated by Frank Sesno who is SMPA’s director.


 Tina Brown



We also felt strongly that in today’s world design matters hugely. That visually we’re at another iteration of the internet where it’s not enough now to simply have links and a basic tech-ridden sort of site that is created by geeks who haven’t really got an editorial point of view. We spent a lot of time on the design of the data base. I’ve always been an editor who sat with our directors and wrestled with them for hours about the tension between form and content and visuals and I did that with The Daily Beast. I went down to the design studio and sort of totally freaked out these tech guys because they weren’t used to having the client show up and sit there and at first they were like, whoa, doesn’t she understand that we don’t want her in our studio. But after time they understood that actually we could give a lot to each other. We became very, very good collaborators because I was totally fascinated to what the design is and they were very fascinated to sort of discover that content actually was important.






 Charlie Sennott

Now in building a team of foreign correspondents these days we no longer have those traditional models of correspondent’s having full positions where they can come into a newsroom and know that when you get assigned overseas everything is taken care of. That you will be a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, which will pay for your son’s schools in my case, they will take good care of you. I feel very fortunate to have experienced that kind of foreign reporting. But it’s largely over. So what we’re left with are fantastic foreign correspondents who are out in the world looking for work and we’ve tried to become is a network of outstanding freelancers.

So we’ve tried to build a team of some of the best foreign correspondents who are out there in the world. Jean McKinsey, who is our Kolbe correspondent, is a great example of the kind of correspondent we have. Jean is also with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and she has a full time contract with them. So she spends a lot of her time in Afghanistan teaching young Afghans how to be reporters. She gets paid for that and then she writes for us on a regular basis as well.

We have correspondents like Michael Goldfarb, longtime National Public Radio correspondent in London who is also writing books. We’ve tried to become an outlet that recognizes that the future of being a foreign reporter is going to be you are an entrepreneur. You are going to have to recognize that you need to think entrepreneurially and consider GlobalPost the base of what you do — a grounding, a steady gig where we give people a retainer to write four stories a month. And then we have a budget for special projects and for enterprise reporting where we can really step it up if you have a great idea and you need more resources. So right now we have 70 correspondents in 50 countries.



Sesno: Jim Brady. Politico… How can one cover a major metropolitan area of 4 million people with 35 or 40 people? What are you building? What will you cover?


 Jim Brady




[I know]

Sesno: And the purpose is to make money.

Brady: I think the idea was to be for profit. I think what’s happened to journalism from the creative standpoint in the last 10 years has been the most exciting time in the history of the craft in terms of the tools we have — the way we can reach audiences 24/7 in any corner of the world. We haven’t figured out the business side yet and I wanted to be part of that.

Sesno: Susan Page. Newspapers as the study points out saw revenue fall 26% in 2009. 43% over three years. What can of traditional newspapers do to reverse the decline? Are there different ways to report the news and get more news more efficiently?

Susan Page: I don’t think anyone thinks of themselves as a traditional newspaper anymore and that would be the case with USA Today. If wanted to read USA Today this morning you could have bought it on a newsstand, you could have gone to You could have subscribed to our e-edition, which takes the paper copy and sends it to you in digital form. I am not entirely sure who that is for but we’re selling that.

 Susan Page



So how do we know that Gov. Sanford was not walking along the Appalachian Trail? We know that because the newspaper the South Carolina State told us that. Or why do we know that Gov. Patterson in New York was intervening inappropriately in a domestic violence case involving a close aide? We know that because the New York Times figured it out and told us. So the idea that traditional newspapers or the traditional mission of newspapers is becoming archaic I think is incorrect.

You know we are trying to figure out how to finance the journalism that we want to do. And I think none of us think that there is going to be some silver bullet — some revolution in classified advertising will suddenly come back and be the financial backbone of newspapers across the country. I think almost all of us think that it’s going to be a mix of things. It’s going to be advertising on the web. It’s going to be getting some revenue from the web from readers. And while the few studies show that people are not now willing to pay on the web for news, you know there was a time when people were not willing to pay money for TV reception but now it’s customary. There was a time when my mother would have slapped me if I’d said I was going to pay a dollar for a bottle of water. Who here has not yet done that?



I would just say one last thing, which goes to something that Jim said. {T]he last couple of years have been really tough to work for newspapers because there have been such serious layoffs and a shrinking news hole, but in some ways good things have happened. You know we are much more transparent now with readers than we ever were. When we were when I started in this business. There is much more accountability. The entire world is your fact checker if you make an error in a story and it gets posted on the web. There is a stronger connection with readers, which goes to some of these communities that we’ve started up on our website. I think the story telling is more powerful because you are not just using words and photos but you are able to use audio and video. And you have, I think, sharper writing for people and less thumb sucking and that’s all to the good too.

Sesno: Antoine, to television for a moment. You straddle an interesting world because NBC is a traditional network. We still have nightly news. You have a variety of cable channels, which is seen as a strength and one of the reasons that the cable news business is one of the few bright spots in terms of revenue as you look across an otherwise bleak landscape certainly in the last year. But I’m curious if you would address this issue of argument versus news and where you think television is going. And this issue of is there news left in cable news, because it appears to have gone, at least in most cases, to the mat.


 Antoine Sanfuentes




Sesno: How about paying for Daily Beast?


Sesno: We didn’t make money at CNN for five years.

Brown: And nor have any magazines of any size but today’s world is about who is going to wait. And you need a partner that can. Or you have to keep refinancing, which is very stressful.

Sesno: Charlie, you are charging something now. What do you get if you pay and how many people are actually paying?

Sennott: Our site is free. still embraces this idea that information wants to be free on the web. But it also recognizes the fact that journalism has great value and it costs money. So we do have a paid membership where we invite people to pay an annual fee of $50.00 a year to become a member of GlobalPost and what you get when you become a member of passport as we call it in GlobalPost is an opportunity to talk to foreign correspondents in the field in a conference call. We invite crowd sourcing but we invite it through membership.

Sesno: How many people are doing this?


Sesno: How do you make money on mobile?

[people will]



Sesno: Unless you’ve lost your job.



Sennott: You know I think that’s true. I think the new model is about building a community that’s going to go out and try and cover a certain segment of what used to be in your newspaper. And that could be sports and that could be in our case international news.

[what happens when]

Brady: Doesn’t have a name yet.


Sennott: I think this is another thing that at GlobalPost we’re really grappling with all the time. And that is we actually are looking for something pretty basic in that you find in the best reporters in the world, which is story telling. What we really in the core want to be about is just telling a great story. And we don’t want to try to create these reporters who think they have to do that through video and photography and audio and writing because then they are going to lose the essence of what it is to tell a story. So when we are dealing with younger reporters and mid career and veteran reporters we always tell them to go to your strength. I mean if you are a writer, write. Tell us the story that way. If you can pick up a digital camera and you feel comfortable with it and you can help document an angle, that’s added value. But what we don’t want to do is sort of blur the lines because I think you end up with great mediocrity that way.

Look when you have a network of 50 people, and you have a story like the global economic crisis and all of them are talented, we can actually take that team and with one email copy to all of them say, we want a snapshot right now from the field of the most devastating antidote you can find of the impact in your country of the global economic crisis. And you can begin to work together and creates this sort of quantum effect. So that our reporting, I’m very proud, won a Saber award and beat out some much larger news sites because we were able to look at it in an integrated way that was very interactive.


Sesno: I remember hearing you on NPR citing Michael Kinsley’s long piece about how we have to have fewer long pieces.


Sesno: And that’s different than it used to be?

Brown: Well I think it makes you much more ruthless as an editor, which is what you need to be.

Sesno: Antoine once upon a time NBC had documentary unit, the other networks had documentary units, CNN had documentary those documentary units have gone away. The only institutional documentary unit anymore really is Frontline on PPS.


Brown: And let’s face it unless Brad Pitt’s involved no one is going to go to Africa. Right?

Sanfuentes: Well I’ll point to my very good friend Ann Curry. We took several trips to Darfur together and Congo and it was really great to see that our leadership at NBC supported us. We went in with great technologies, small; we were able to transmit from there both at the border in Chad and from Congo. Something that would have been unheard of I think.

Sesno: Tom Rosenstiel, from what you’ve heard so far what most encourages you and what most concerns you given the conversation and the research?


Sesno: We don’t need the one big homerun place.

Rosenstiel: No. There is essentially a more complex news ecosystem that is now forming. I’ll never look to the Daily Beast to be the New York Times nor should I want to. There already is a New York Times. And the other thing that I think is encouraging is that when you recognize that you begin to start to say wait a second — news is not just the long narrative or the inverted pyramid. I am intrigued too by the idea of new ways of writing stories. The idea of a Wikipedia page for a long running story or a Wikipedia like page where I could go in and find out what happened today and then sort of get all the other background there. The idea of the story that you start over every day is really an artifact of the 19th century. So I think that’s very encouraging.

Sesno: What worries you?

Rosenstiel: What worries me is that thinking doesn’t go far enough. Ultimately my guess is that if the news institutions are going to monetize the web it’s going to be by moving away from narrative. That they are going to have to recognize that they’re in the knowledge and information business. And that there are many businesses embedded in that. And that simply trying to put ads against narrative is a very narrow slice of the knowledge business.


Find the full transcript and a video of the event at the SMPA website.

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