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Stephen Shepard

Journalism’s transition to the Digital Age

VTR Date: January 25, 2014

Guest: Stephen Shepard

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GUEST: Stephen Shepard
AIR DATE: 1/25/2014
VTR: 09/13/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when today’s guest first joined me here close to a decade ago, he had already had a long and distinguished career in print journalism, first at Newsweek, finally as editor-in-chief of Business Week.

But he wasn’t through with journalism yet … as one knows he never will be. For Stephen Shepard went on then to become the Founding Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, right on the front line of training a new generation of journalists.

Now, McGraw Hill has published Steve Shepard’s revealing Deadlines and Disruption, an intriguing memoir of a life in journalism that Walter Isaacson calls “…a personal and insightful book about one of the most important questions of our time: how will journalism make the transition to the digital age?”

And I guess that the first issue I would raise with my guest as Editor-in-Chief turned Dean has to do with the degree to which he truly believes that the essence of journalism as we – he and I – once knew it will, indeed, make that transition. Do you think it will?

SHEPARD: I do. You can count me as an optimist. I think we can preserve the eternal verities of the profession … the reporting, the writing, the critical thinking, the ethical values that we grew up with, with all the new stuff. With multi-media interactive forms of journalism, delivered on a multiple platform … smart phones, tablets, computers and so on. And using social media for distribution. ]

This is a form of journalism that can be consumed globally, you can walk down the street and read The Guardian in England on your cell phone, if you choose to. So I think that … yes, I’m, I’m optimistic and that’s the whole premise of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is that we can prepare students for the new world and still retain the eternal verities of what we, what we knew as traditional journalism.

HEFFNER: Well then why has there been so much pessimism about that? What are the factors, honestly reviewed that have lead many people to say, “Look, the old days, they’re gone”.

SHEPARD: Well, the old days are gone. But there are going to be new days. I mean the reason people are pessimistic is they look around, they see their daily newspaper being hollowed out. Bureaus being closed, people being laid off. What they don’t see is the parallel universe that is growing up in journalism … Pro Publica for investigative reporting. Politico for Washington reporting. Kaiser Health News, Huffington Post … all kinds of ways of doing journalism that didn’t exist a few years ago.

So, I’m … I, I’m very, very hopeful. You know something called Inside Climate News won a Pulitzer Prize this year for national reporting. And something called California Watch was a Pulitzer finalist for public service reporting. People aren’t aware of that, but they are aware when the see lay-offs happening. So I think the perception … the reality is much more encouraging than the perception people have.

HEFFNER: What’s happened to the concept of “profession”?

SHEPARD: Well, ahh, that’s a very good question. What has happened to my generation is, is an amazing change to the point where we professionals who took our role very seriously as gatekeepers, who help, help filter the news and tell you what was important and came up with new stories that you wouldn’t think to ask for on a Google search … we, we have been displaced to some degree by what, you know, the people formerly called “the audience” … journalism is now not just a product, but it’s a process. It’s a two way street, it’s a conversation and anyone can be a journalist, or at least commit an act of journalism.

So, there’s a kind of “pro-am” … professional and amateur kind of blending. And, you know, amateurs are doing a really lot of good work whether it’s in the Middle East, the tweeting of what went on in the so-called “Hour of Spring” … all kinds of good journalism is being done who are not professional journalists.

And what we’re seeing is a blend of the two. And, and, and handled and managed properly, it can enhance journalism. Because, you know, a lot of people out there know a lot about a particular subject. And if we can harness that information and conform it to the norms of the profession, I think we will have a much better product.

HEFFNER: That old … I used to and I think probably I even did it when you were here so many years ago. Reading Janet Malcolm and reading that wonderful first paragraph in which she disparages the reporter.

What about the, the reporter and his or her standards and what about the loss of professional-ism that many people think about?

SHEPARD: Yeah. I mean we have to worry about that. We have to apply standards to the bloggers … okay …

HEFFNER: How do you do that?

SHEPARD: Well, you, you … by selection … you know you can’t get an individual blogger to change the way he does things, but there are a lot of bloggers who do a very, very good job. And it’s our job as managers of, of a journalistic enterprise to find the good ones.

Just as in the old world, we had to find sources who were reliable sources. Now we have to find bloggers and there are plenty of them in, in various communities, who do very, very good work and reject the work of, of the ones who aren’t really meeting high standards. So …

HEFFNER: But that sounds like licensing almost.

SHEPARD: No. It’s … look if I’m running a, a product … a magazine now … New York magazine … or Business Week, or anything now, I want to use the community, I want to use people who know a lot about a particular subject, whether it’s local schools, or crime or immigration or health or whatever … in a community.

And it’s up to me to find the ones who do very, very good work and to curate or aggregate work that’s being done around and put it up on my site. In addition to the professional work done by the professionals on my staff. That’s additive … that makes journalism better. And the people who are doing crap on the Internet and there is a lot of junk, you don’t put them on your site.

And people will then come to you because your brand stands for something and they know when you’re aggregating content from the blogosphere, you’re making good choices. People who have something to say in a responsible way.

HEFFNER: How does the audience differentiate between the junk and what’s good?

SHEPARD: Well, that’s, that’s a very good question. The burden is much more on the individual consumer of news and information today than it ever was …

HEFFNER: Isn’t that an impossibility?

SHEPARD: Well, it’s a responsibility. I don’t know if its an impossibility. But people are not stupid, you know, they can read something and say “This, you know, this isn’t solid, it doesn’t sound right”. It’s there.

And, you know, you get to find who the good bloggers are. You want to follow Fareed Zekaria or Peter Beinart or, or Andrew Sullivan. You get to know who’s good or who’s stuff you like, even if you don’t always agree with it. Okay?

And you reject the people who aren’t good. The burden is on you. You know, it’s more of a do-it-yourself model of journalism today for the consumer. That you can pick and choose and there’s great stuff on the Internet. But it’s up to you to find the good stuff and not tune in to the bad stuff. And we can’t regulate that.

Look, in the old days we couldn’t stop … not everybody read The New York Times. We couldn’t stop people from reading the Enquirer, you know, and, and reading a lot of junky stuff. And, nor do we want to try to stop people from doing that. It, it’s the same now. You know, there is … you have to discriminate between what’s good out there and what isn’t.

HEFFNER: There are a lot of people who argue it’s not the same … it’s much worse.

SHEPARD: Well, it’s better and worse, you know, because it’s easier for the junk to proliferate.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

SHEPARD: That is certainly true. But it’s also true that something that’s really good … I can send to you and all my friends that “you should read this” and you might not have known about that piece, but I’m sending it to you, with a link … we live in a link economy now. And you will get the benefit of that … I’m multiplying your access to information. And I’ll be a trusted source of that to you. So when you see I’m sending you something … you trust me, you look at that. And it’s true, people are going to send you junk.

HEFFNER: But Steve I know you’re right about that …

SHEPARD: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … you’re absolutely right about it. You send me something, I’m going to look at it, I’m going to be impressed with it … I’m going to send it on. Doesn’t that mean that the rich get richer and the poor … possibly get poorer … that the intellectually … knowledge-wise rich get richer … aren’t you talking about a further and further bifurcated society?

SHEPARD: Well, it is certainly true that people have to have access to the Internet. Whether you’re talking about this country or around the world. And if you don’t have access, you’re cut off from this conversation, you’re cut off from that viral network of, of people sending you good information. So to that degree … yeah …

HEFFNER: But that isn’t what I meant. I mean you and I …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … sit here … you’re a Dean … I’m a faculty member … we communicate, we link together. But when you turn to the rest of society … and what it has accessible to it, all that junk that we referred to, aren’t you … don’t we have here a device by which those with some knowledge gain more and those whose taste for knowledge has not been developed, have less.

SHEPARD: I guess I would argue the opposite. I would argue that the technology makes it possible to reach people who haven’t had as much access to information, who aren’t as well educated. I think online education is going to help raise the quality of what we do in the schools and distance learning for people who are remote from centers of excellence.

So I would argue the opposite, that this is a technology that can enhance learning among people who aren’t as privileged as we are.

HEFFNER: I hope you’re right …

SHEPARD: (Laugher)

HEFFNER: … God knows that I hope you’re right. When I look, though, at what is available to me and to everyone else online … I fear … and I need to, to raise another important …

SHEPARD: Sure.

HEFFNER: … question which I’m sure you have raised with your students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

What about the privileges that have historically … not, not that they’re always been agreed upon … the privileges we’ve basically assumed … the journalists, the recognized journalist has … do those privileges go with the public journalists, those many, many, many others who get involved in reaching us with the news of the day?

SHEPARD: Ah, yes, to some extent. I mean before in the “old” world, we had our by-lines, but we were most associated … “Well, he writes for the New York Times, he writes for The Wall Street Journal, he writes for Business Week”.

And now individual brands are becoming a little more prominent. People will follow individuals instead of following the publication they look for … they tend to read or used to read.

So I, I think that the privilege is in a funny way, ahmm, more accessible to people … that, that “I don’t have to work for a large institution to be a voice on the Internet’. And to the degree I’m good and can reach people and people like what I’m doing, I become a brand. And so I think that that privilege is, in, in way bestowed on more people now based on what they’re doing, rather than people who are just working for an institution as world famous.

HEFFNER: The legal, legal approach to reporters privilege. You’re saying, you’re not concerned about this …

SHEPARD: Well, I think this is a very difficult area because if anybody can commit an act of journalism, as I like to say … aren’t, aren’t they entitled to the privileges of being a journalist … the shield laws … and so on. No one knows the answer to that and I think the only way we can approach it is to say “We shouldn’t talk about journalists as individuals, we should talk about acts of journalism, which are recognizable and that’s what should be protected.” So, if somebody no one ever heard of writes a piece and the piece is journalism then it deserves some protection.

But we’re just beginning to think through how we apply the libel laws and the privileges the journalists have in our society to this new world. And we’re not there yet. And you see some of that with the NSA stuff. Who’s a journalist?

HEFFNER: Right. That’s … who should be considered a journalist?

SHEPARD: Well, my definition is somebody who … doesn’t have an ax to grind, is not coming at it from an activist point of view. He may have a point of view on a particular story, he might be an editorial writer.

HEFFNER: Does not have an activist point of view …

SHEPARD: Well, journalists …

HEFFNER: … where, where do we put Paul Krugman then?

SHEPARD: Journal… well, he’s a columnist and has a point of view, is entitled to have a point of view and he works for a journalistic institution called The New York Times … fine. No one would say he’s not a journalist or his opinion shouldn’t be protected, okay … but I … you know … so he’s, he’s an intellectual activist … he’s not leaking government documents, he’s not on a crusade … well, he is on a crusade, but it’s an intellectual crusade to persuade people that certain economic policies are better than other economic policies. So, these are tough question, Dick, I mean I …

HEFFNER: I wouldn’t be asking them of you if they weren’t …

SHEPARD: … answer … but tough … the traditional journ … definition of a journalist is somebody who is approaching something neutrally. That is, not that the story has to come out neutral, it can have a point of view, but he’s going in, trying to find out what the right point of view … he’s not bringing a priori because he, he’s an ideologue of Left/Right, whatever. And that’s generally the definition.

And it can opinion writing … it can be analytical stuff … it doesn’t have to AP on the one hand, on the other kind of journalism.

Journalism is a spectrum … it’s all kinds of stuff from radio reports and wire service stories to daily newspaper stories … to weekly magazine stories … to monthly magazines, to books, to encyclopedias, you know … all of that is a form of journalism. And that’s what needs to be protected and, and we have to define the act of journalism, rather than the person as a journalist.

HEFFNER: Ah, are you … as most … I guess all the journalists who’ve been here … no, not all, some exceptions … are you going to be one who rejects the notion of the old News Council … the idea of making this as much of a profession with standards that have to be … and I use the word carefully … enforced?

SHEPARD: Ah, I think when you get talking about standards for journalism you run the risk of … running afoul of the First Amendment right that anyone can express a thought.

I think standards have to be voluntary. When I was the Editor-in-Chief of Business Week, I was the President of the American Society of Magazine Editors for two years and we set standards on certain “adver-torials” that magazines were running and we, we didn’t want the reader to be confused as to what is paid advertising and what is the Editorial “voice” content of the magazine.

And we set standards. But we didn’t say to anybody, you know, you, you could … you had to adhere to these standards because we had no authority to do so and it would be unconstitutional to tell somebody what they could print or not print.

So, but … you … you know, you can establish professional standards and best practices do spread. To all publications? Of course not. There’s, there was always junk and there always will be junk. But the predominant number of magazines that we dealt with adhere to the standards and they were happy to have standards. Because it said, “This is not a best practice.” You don’t want to confuse the reader as to what’s advertising and what isn’t. And we did very well.

So I would say when it comes to standards they should be … we should have best practices. But they, they have to be voluntary.

HEFFNER: Ah, in the school … (clears throat) …

SHEPARD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … in terms of the electronic media … what have you done with questions of … oh, a Fairness Doctrine … things like that?

SHEPARD: Well, you know the Fairness Doctrine doesn’t exist on television any more.

HEFFNER: I know.

SHEPARD: What we try to tell people, we teach fairness as one of the verities of journalism. You’ve got to hear from multiple sources before you make-up your mind. You have to fact check … you know the usual things, subject to editing … all of the, all of the things that go into making professional standards of journalism. And we teach that. And we try to explain fairness, which doesn’t mean on the one hand, on the other, it just means listening to all the sides of the argument … considering what is right, making the case, if you want to have an analytic point of view in the story … buttress it with evidence, recognize there’s another side, but make you point … in a way that it becomes credible to the reader.

We read this stuff all the time and I know, when I’m reading something, this is a fair piece because he recognizes another side of the story … he wants to argue this side of the story … but he’s buttressing, with all kinds of evidence and he’s quoting reputable people and it has a tone of fairness even if he’s taking a position.

HEFFNER: In … as a journalist … have you felt over the years that the Fairness Doctrine … we have every reason to miss it?

SHEPARD: (Laughter) Well, you know, it existed at a time when there were, you know, just a handful of television stations …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

SHEPARD: … and now we live in a world of infinite content and the theory is that everything gets balanced out because it’s all out there. And, and a Fairness Doctrine, you couldn’t apply to all the possible sources of information.

You can apply it to broadcasters who are licensed by the Federal Government to use the airwaves. And that’s what we did in the “old” days, but that’s a very small percentage of what goes on now.

HEFFNER: Would you make the choice of, ahh, applying it to others who have larger audiences electronically.

SHEPARD: No, I think that the broadcast stations were, were a special case …

HEFFNER: Because they were licensed?

SHEPARD: Because they used public airwaves, and were licensed. It’s the one form of content that has been regulated that way in this country.

And that … they still are licensed, obviously, but they’re a small part of the eco-system of information today. So, I wouldn’t try to apply that to the rest of people out there, trying to do reporting and writing.

HEFFNER: Even though fairness is certainly … as one watches … or fairness and balance on a large screen is not terribly often to be found. Or its violation is often to be found.

SHEPARD: You know it was ever thus. I, I just don’t think that the technology in the new world has made that problem much worse. Because for every example of bad, unfair, commentary that you see on, on the web, there is so much more that is really, really good. And again it’s up to us to separate the good from the bad.

HEFFNER: Well, when you say “us” …

SHEPARD: But you can’t have … you know a Fairness Doctrine applied to every reporter under the sun who’s trying to do a good job.

HEFFNER: Not if by “reporter” you mean anyone who wants to scribble his views or her views or use the digital media.

SHEPARD: Yeah, aww, look … people go on the air and now … I mean there’s talk radio that has a strong political slant, usually to the Right. I wouldn’t say they couldn’t do that. I would just try to make sure that there are other outlets that are giving you another point of view. So, I, I … when you get to government regulation of this new world, or even of the old world, I get very nervous because I think that they will make it worse, not better.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that? Is this just an “old hat” notion of somebody who’s trained as a journalist and has that First Amendment, First Amendment …

SHEPARD: Well part of it is visceral … absolutely. You know we live in a society where we have great freedom. And I’ve always said that with freedom comes great responsibility and one of the things we have to be responsible for is accuracy, obviously, fairness, truth is the best … we can find it. And, you know, with some sense of the public interest in mind, we are serving an audience. Serious journalism, which is what I’m concerned about serves an audience. And if you have that mindset and the ones that we grew … we grew up with that … that’s hard for me to give up. I mean I think … I take that very seriously …

HEFFNER: Well …

SHEPARD: … my responsibility as a journalist.

HEFFNER: I’m fascinated by the emphasis you place upon the responsibility of the consumer, the viewer, the reader … rather than those who produce the material.

SHEPARD: Well, both. I think, I think the main difference between then and now is there’s more responsibility on the consumer because there’s much more out there now … there are many, many, many more outlets for information, let’s call it, than there were before.

The responsibility on the producers of information is pretty much the same, okay … the professional standards that we’ve been talking about. But what is new is that the user has to take more responsibility for consuming in a, in a good way.

HEFFNER: And how ….

SHEPARD: We can’t enforce that obviously, but …

HEFFNER: How …

SHEPARD: … we can educate consumers. I think all these classes and courses … Stony Brook has a very good program to educate a lot of people in, in news literacy …which is, you know, how should you read a newspaper or listen to a television show? How do you determine what’s good information and what’s propaganda and what’s “spin” … you know … what goes into it … you know, how much background information are they providing. How do you discriminate between good and bad. We need news literacy in this country, we need to educate people on what content is in this day and age and how to recognize good from bad.

HEFFNER: What do you consider … we just have a couple of minutes left … what do you consider the major challenges facing the schools of journalism?

SHEPARD: It’s to combine the traditional world, the eternal verities, I call them with the new stuff in a balanced way so that journalists come out with the traditional skills and the skills in, in the new world.

I also think it’s the responsibility of journalism schools to get active in thinking about business models to sustain quality journalism in the digital age. The problem as I see it now is not so much the journalism out there today. There’s more journalism being done on more platforms by more people than ever before. The problem is how do we support it? What’s the business model for, for not just The New York Times, but new inside climate news, new websites. You know, we need to figure that out and I think it’s the responsibility of the journalism schools … CUNY in particular has done this … to try to find out, explore new ways of supporting journalism … new business models.

HEFFNER: You emphasis that matter of business models …

SHEPARD: Yes.

HEFFNER: … in Deadlines and Disruption … you emphasized it in a recent speech … how successful are we being?

SHEPARD: Well, we’re seeing a shift in the business model from support by advertising … you know, in the old days advertising paid about 80% of the, of the bills for print publications … newspapers, magazines … that was very typical. And 20% came from the reader. Now we’re seeing it shifting to more than 50% is coming from the reader. Some of that is because of the collapse of advertising.

HEFFNER: HmmMmm.

SHEPARD: But some of it is because readers are now starting to pay for content. The New York Times is, is … got 700,000 people paying upwards of $200 a, a year for content … these are people who don’t subscribe to the newspaper, but they want a digital version of the Times on their smart phones or their tablets or their computers. And they’re paying. It’s a new revenue stream to The New York Times, it’s probably $140 million dollars a year that didn’t exist three years ago. So the business model is changing.

HEFFNER: And I know form the book and from what you’ve written more recently you believe it will work.

SHEPARD: It will work and it has to work, Dick.

HEFFNER: Steve Shepard thank you so much for joining me today.

SHEPARD: Thank you. Pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.