Media Matters

GUEST: Jerome Aumente
AIR DATE: 08/28/2010

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is a retired former colleague of mine at Rutgers University… Jerome Aumente, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the School of Communication and Information.

Now, Jerry has spent many years studying both journalism and journalists abroad…as well as the perils that those who report on the world outside – an anachronistic phrase if ever I’ve used one – do now face in gathering the news of the day.

He has examined as well what new training, international education and cultural opportunities America’s journalism schools must provide to meet such international challenges.

And in 2008, Professor Aumente’s book, “From Ink on Paper to the Internet”, won the Societies of Professional Journalists’ national award for journalism research…leading me to begin our program today by asking my guest just how well we’re doing in adapting to the new media and to the new dangers abroad. How well are we doing, Jerry?

AUMENTE: I think we’re … we’re out of our period of denial. There was a time when, when the whole journalism structure was falling like a rock and we were basically saying, “Well, this is just a little, a little bit of a problem.”.

But I think we’re at a point now when we realize that the, in a sense, the whole journalist ecosystem has changed. And if you look at the numbers … I mean in the last ten years, one of every five journalistic positions at newspapers has disappeared.

Circulation of newspapers has dropped something like 30%. The amount of money that we spend on journalism in a sense of investigative long form kinds of reporting, specialized reporting … that’s dropped about $1.6 billion a year in the last five years. So that basically we’ve had a, especially in the print industry … we’ve had a, a, a sense of someone who’s on life support … suddenly finding the electricity failing during a hurricane.

You know the economy came down on top of everything else. The problem basically is that I think much of the print and broadcast media, news media, were not aware of what was happening to them. They were in a period of denial.

I wrote a earlier book in 1987 and it was called New Communication Pathways, and it looked at video text and tele- text and online databases, basically looking at electronic publishing.

This was a very critical time for the, for the news media to be able to really take hold of what was becoming a digital world. It was at the beginnings of it.

And they totally denied it. They basically said, “it’s going to go away.” And I mean there was a sort of the, the so-called “Imperial media”, the, the old media, if you want to call it that … the legacy media … there are all kinds of euphemisms for it, but basically many of the papers, many of the radio and television stations simply said, “It’s going to go away, it’s not going to happen. You know the digital world is not going to change us.”

I was, I was struck by the arrogance of the media at that point. When, when, when they were trying to develop electronic publishing and online services, they segregated and put the … they were not journalists … they were not considered journalists … they were put in another building. They couldn’t be in the newsroom.

They were … if you look at some of the earlier experiments, AP and, and others, they were sort of rejoicing in the fact that this thing was failing. So just at the point when they could have wrapped their arms around it and really done something differently, they missed.

And now they’re trying to catch up. You know, The New York Times is hoping that it will be able to get some money by charging for its service starting early, early next year.

We have Rupert Murdoch insisting that he’s going to put pay walls around everything.

All of this is, is, is so difficult to sort of sort out and, and then we come to the other issue of how do we train and how do we educate for this?

What should the universities be doing? What should I be doing? What should other journalism trainers be doing when we go overseas?

I’ve been overseas about 170 times now doing programs. We established … in 1989 after the, the Soviet bloc came apart with the Solidarity elections in Poland we moved in and spent a lot of time doing fundamentals of journalism.

I remember a Polish journalist, well respected, someone I know who’s Neiman Fellow at Harvard … he’s … I was talking to him one day when we were starting our programs and I, and I said to him, “You know what’s your … what, what can be most helpful to you?”

And he said, “Look, we know the fundamentals of good and bad journalism. The problem is that for the last 20 years we’ve been interviewing on our knees. And we need a change in attitude. We need to be aggressive. We need to be do investigative reporting, we need to do long form reporting.”

And we started doing that. We basically worked with young people to …

HEFFNER: You mean started doing it overseas?

AUMENTE: Overseas, yeah.

HEFFNER: Helping them do it overseas.

AUMENTE: And, and, and if I go … if I go from 1989 to 2010 and then I ask myself “what should I be doing now?” And this is the basis of the research I’m doing in terms of journalism training … ahh, both in the US and overseas … again, that, that ecosystem of journalists must change totally.

And we have to look not only at what is happening overseas, but what is happening here. When I … the issue of safety is, is, is, is always an important one.

HEFFNER: Well, how do you … how do you … to me that’s so important … how do you train, how do you help prepare people …

AUMENTE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … for what seems to me to be an absolutely extraordinary increase in the dangers in which journalists work now.

AUMENTE: MmmHmm. Well, there are a, a number of ways to approach that.

One is to actually … there’s a check list … a safety check list in the sense that one can … that one can go through in terms of what you should do and not do if you’re a journalist anywhere … whether you’re from the US or the … from Serbia. Whether you’re from Poland. Whether you’re from Thailand. The fundamentals of how to protect yourself.

But beyond that, I think that what we need to do and I’ve been doing a lot writing about this in the admin reports in, in the winter issue and then also with Krill magazine in the … in … last, last summer.

The idea that journalism trainers in fact have, have to start training themselves or, or become aware of the fact that when they walk into a room with 30 Iraqi journalists the way I did in Beirut, Lebanon two years ago … I’m dealing not only with information, but I’m dealing with a whole life form there that, that is, is really in danger.

And, and a good example of that is the, the Iraqi television journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi. This was about three weeks before he threw the shoes at Bush in Beirut. I’m sorry … in, in Baghdad … but we were in Beirut … he came up to me first day of class and said, “You know, I need your help.”

I didn’t know him, I’d never met him, I had, had some background on, on people in the class, but very general.

And he said, “I’m suffering, really, from Post Traumatic Stress … I’m really in trouble.” He had been kidnapped by … probably by Al Qaeda, the year before … kept hostage and then released. He had been held under surveillance by the US Army at another point in his life. And then suddenly he was trying to deal with all of this and, and we, we spent a lot of time talking and I tried to identify organizations in the United States that are really good at, at doing something about this.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is a good example. We’ve done a lot of work on, on cross-over work in terms of a, of a, of trying to support journalists.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you talk about preparation … the journalist’s preparation … a check list, etc.

AUMENTE: Yes.

HEFFNER: What kind of a check list in, in a world that seems …

AUMENTE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … to be newsy in areas of great danger.

AUMENTE: There, there are things that can be done and if, in terms of whether one is embedded with a, a, a, an armed forces kind of protection.

There’s another kind of wild, “nobody knows, Russian roulette kind of situation” where every day, every second is, you know, it can be Times Square, it can be downtown Baghdad, it can be Afghanistan.

There’s nothing you can do to protect against that. But what you can do is be sure that organizations that are dealing with journalists, Reporters Without Border, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Center for Journalists, things like this, have the kind of back-up that will allow number one, a trainer, like myself, to realize that when I’m in a room like this and I’m, I’m working with journalists, I’m not only giving the fundamentals, but I’m also, in a sense, being a counselor.

I mean it’s no different than what I do and what I did as a full time faculty member or as a Chair. I had students coming in all the time. The agenda was …

HEFFNER: They weren’t going out and getting shot at, Jerry.

AUMENTE: No.

HEFFNER: Not even on the Rutgers campus.

AUMENTE: (Laugher) Thankfully. But they, but they were coming in and basically they may, they may … ostensibly … may have had a problem with a paper or with finishing a course, or something like this.

But underneath that was a whole life of, of different kinds of problems that if, if you listen and if you, if you really work with them, you begin to realize that with, with Muntazer, for instance, the shoe thrower … three weeks later he just exploded in, in Beirut and he threw these shoes at Bush. Thankfully they didn’t hit him, he wasn’t’ killed, no on else was killed. Either the president or, or the journalists, or the other journalists in the room.

But, what was needed I think is a quick response, kind of philanthropic foundation … quick response … some kind of a safety net for these journalists.

I mean we know that the journalists in Iraq are experiencing a lot of problems. Much more than ordinarily. We know that their families need help.

And let me give you another example. Just about the time that this happened with the shoe thrower, I was working with a group of … I, I’d done a series of about eight programs in Washington and then overseas with journalists from the Middle East.

In one of them, one of those programs, we met in the White House with George Bush. Spent about 45 minutes with him … we were then invited into the Oval Office and had individual pictures taken and, and the Iraqi journalists basically said, to me … we can’t publicize this photograph. We had a group photo with him. We had individual photos. “If this photo gets back out … if it goes out …

HEFFNER: They’re in danger.

AUMENTE: They’re really in danger. It was important for me to understand this. It was important for me, before we even had a meeting with Bush … I, I had to really talk with the nine journalists and they had to vote … they literally voted to … as to whether or not they would even have a meeting with him.

And if the meeting were going to take place, which it did, what were the ground rules.

And, and one of the ground rules simply was … no publicity.

HEFFNER: But, Jerry, let me, let me ask … switch it a little …

AUMENTE: Sure.

HEFFNER: … and ask you about what’s happened in the training of Americans to work overseas.

AUMENTE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: American journalists are now so much more endangered than they ever were in our history. What’s happened to, let’s say … the numbers of the younger journalists who are willing to go overseas. Has that been affected at all?

AUMENTE: Ahh, it’s, it’s been affected … yes, in two ways. One is that people are much more sensitive to the dangers. The other problem is though that overseas assignments are shrinking and disappearing. I mean … we’re looking at a news media in the United States that is shutting down its bureaus, shutting down its overseas expenses.

I think I mentioned before that something like $1.6 billion dollars a year is being cut. 30% has been cut out of, out of budgets.

HEFFNER: Can you measure that in the news that we Americans are getting? On the air? In print?

AUMENTE: Yeah. This, this is … we’re on a downward … very much on a downward … both in content and quality … the money that’s being cut out of the budgets for the newspapers and radio and television stations is, is the money that goes in for these long form investigative pieces.

The money that goes into … not only investigative but other kinds of enterprise reporting … accountability reporting … and that, I think, maybe is a, is a good point to, to then say, “Okay, how do we deal with this? And how do we deal with … not only in, in training, in training of journalists, but, we have to be willing to understand that the whole news media landscape has changed.

It used to be that the concept of interactivity between a, a reader and the newspaper was whether or not he could … he or she could beg to get two paragraphs into The New York Times letter section.

There’s a whole world out there now of interactivity with one billion, going on two billion people who are using the Internet. The old methods don’t work any more. And I think that the journalism schools, which have tended to be the caboose at the end of the train, have … are starting to move up a little closer. And may, in fact, become an engine of change instead of being in the back.

And what that means, basically is that we need, we need to train journalists, not only to be multi-media conscious, but also to start looking at whole new formats. I think that, you know, we, we talk about citizen journalism in sort of a disparaging kind of way. That, you know, there’s a lot of people blogging with empty heads and simply riffing off what happens to be the latest headline of the day.

But there is a need for … for instance, if I were, if I were going to a foundation now or to a philanthropic individual … I would start talking about how do we change the, in the training … how do we start doing management and decision making, both for our journalists here in the United States and those overseas to really deal with this.

And this, this … there’s a whole array out there of things. One is that our … Columbia did … Columbia University recently did a really good report by Len Downey, Jr. and by Michael Schudson on restructuring journalism.

And some of those recommendations are really worth thinking about. And one is the idea that we need a change in our tax structure laws so that we can start supporting non-profit of low profit kinds of newspaper so that they can take money from sources that will help support them.

I’d like to … I’m playing with an idea … I’m in the middle of doing some research on … on FDR and the CCCs back in the 1930s … the Civilian Conservation Corps …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

AUMENTE: Why can’t we have a Civilian Communication Corps? Why can’t we have … we have so many younger people out there now are doing nothing … or maybe doing unpaid internships, or, or whatever … whatever happens to be.

But how, how could we harness this really fantastic broadband world that we have … this digital world that we have and start having people work on that?

I mean I would like to make a recommendation, for instance, that we create a Communication Media Corps…while there are all kinds of professors out there and teachers, like myself, who had a lot of experience.

A lot of journalists who are senior journalists, who are, in fact, volunteering to do things. Perhaps we can look at, at what we have here in the way an opportunity. The opportunity being we have an integrated two way kind of, of way of, of building information.

But what it means is … you know … things like changing the tax laws. Maybe creating … we have a National Endowment for the Arts … National Endowment for the Humanities and they’ve been really wonderful in supporting a lot of media related things.

Maybe we have to start having a civilian communication corps … maybe we need to have a national endowment for news. The money could come from … FCC might, in fact, be able to collect some of the money through broadcasting licenses through a whole range of things.

With this is … there’s a series of problems. And, and, and I … you know, it’s always very dangerous to talk about all the opportunities. I mean we had opportunities … CATV … I thought when it first came out was going to be a wonderful tool for people to open up new ideas and to open up local voices.

That totally disappeared. We, we worked with local origination program people. We worked with municipalities to get them to write better ordinances that would allow for access to a channel. Things like this. That’s got … pretty much got wiped out.

We have another chance and probably an even more exciting chance with, with a very literate … digitally literate population. We have it tied into the schools, we have it tied into the libraries.

What do we do with it? And, and this is what I think is really exciting about what is happening now.

When you see something like ProPublica … the, the $10 million dollar a year Paul Seiger operation. Paul being the former Managing Editor of …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

AUMENTE: … the Wall Street Journal. Being able to win a Pulitzer Prize in combination with The New York Times. So we have new structures. We have collaborative structures between new media websites … things like this.

HEFFNER: But, at the same time, Jerry, we’re dealing with a problem now of the news from outside of our own sphere of influence which has become more and more limited to our shores …

AUMENTE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … our boundaries. What about the news from overseas?

AUMENTE: There are things that are, are … that are … number one I think the universities have to do much more than they’ve done before. I think the universities are great warehouses of knowledge. And when we talk about overseas … I mean they … you look at any, any, anyone of the top tier or even middle tier universities … they’re doing a lot of programs overseas, they’re doing a lot of work in the field.

They can bring to that, that knowledge to, to the discussion. But again, we need different kinds of formats so that the universities are, are engaged in, in this …

HEFFNER: But in the meantime, what are …

AUMENTE: Yeah?

HEFFNER: … what are our journalism schools doing about these young people who are coming to study with them …

AUMENTE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … who in the past had a chance of going overseas and bringing back to us, in this country, news of the world outside.

AUMENTE: There are some interesting experiments. One of them is … ah, ah, ah … a website called Global Post. It was formed by somebody previously who was at the Boston Globe and, and basically what they’re doing is creating correspondents in fifty different countries.

And then they’re sending … you know Global Post is a, is a functioning website now that is doing good work … and it has 50 correspondents that are sending information to this particular source. That’s only one of hundreds that could be developed.

HEFFNER: Now are they sending locals or are they American would-be journalists?

AUMENTE: Ahem, it’s a combination. It’s … it … many of them are, are native locals, indigenous to the area, really know the area, know the language. Which again solves the problem of parachute journalism, an American flying in for a week and a half and then doing a really … I want to say … not authoritarian but authoritative kind of report.

I mean we’re getting that. There are a lot of young people who are starting sites and that are, that are doing this. But again I think what we have to do is say, “Okay, where do we need … where are the weaknesses in this whole eco-system?”

And one of the weaknesses as you point out is lack of international news. The lack of international sensibility.

And there’s no reason why we cannot have the long form … the investigative kind of, of approach … as the in-depth kind of things. Thailand is a good example. I was there last November to do, to do some workshops with health professionals and with journalists in terms of using … using the media.

I am now in touch with a number of these people that I met who are sending me daily reports of what is happening in, in, in, in Bangkok and in the rest of the country. And what impact this has.

If we can harness this … I mean if we could … it’s sort of scattered … I mean it’s all over the place now. We need to give some kind of structure to it.

HEFFNER: Are there any major structures in our country … and we have just a couple of minutes left … are there major foundations or other organizations that are striving to improve … given the …

AUMENTE: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … the situation, as you described it … cutting back on the part of the press and of broadcasters on their news reports … that are trying to work out, enabling us to become familiar with what’s going on around the world?

AUMENTE: There are some. Not enough. Not nearly enough. I think that … you know … I can, I can mention different … different websites that are doing … the problem is with these websites is they pop up with all kinds of, of, of hope and then 70% to 90% of the websites go down. I mean we know that 5% to 10% are probably are going to make it.

But I think it needs an infusion of energy and of resources by foundations, by philanthropists. We do it in, in a government sense with the State Department. I mean the individual embassies are basically sending Americans over, overseas and then, and then doing a lot of international visitors here. That kind of, of interplay is, again, what I’m doing some research on now. How do we, how do we solidify that?

For instance, I’ve had really good luck with having journalists who … find that they’re willing … that they’re able to meet with the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC … the big players and the big players are saying to us, “This is good for me, this is good for us.”

On the American side we’re, we’re learning about … in this case the Middle East … we’re learning about … things about the Middle East that we didn’t know before. We’re developing contacts so that maybe someone could become a stringer in, in that particular area and provide information back to us.

Now all of that enriches the, the global sensibility. But it’s not enough. I would … I would also be, be concerned if, if … not only about international, but what is happening to the accountability reporting? What is happening to the enterprise reporting in the United States.

I mean State House correspondents are disappearing like crazy. What kind of formats can we have so that we have universities becoming … students into faculty … becoming a source of information and a source of news.

How about collaboration between the professionals and the amateurs? They’re … it’s, it’s, it’s a very exciting time. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s a difficult time if you’re in it, but it’s a very exciting time.

HEFFNER: Jerry, I hope you maintain your excitement while I, I guess, maintain my usual …

AUMENTE: Sure.

HEFFNER: … pessimism about where we are and where we’re going. Thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

AUMENTE: Thank you, I enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you will join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit The Open Mind website at theopenmind(dot)tv.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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