Why Journalism Will Thrive

  • By Newmark J-School Staff

The following is an abridged version of Dean Stephen B. Shepard’s remarks to the Class of 2009 at its Dec. 16th commencement ceremony.

When you arrived in August, 2008, we all knew that journalism was at a critical juncture. It was – and is – a time of profound and wrenching transition to the digital age. A lot of it is tough to watch – all those layoffs, cutbacks in coverage, shrinking revenues, slumping stock prices, and anxiety over new business models. If that wasn’t bad enough, we are mired in the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. So your path will be difficult, especially in the beginning.

But I think all of us have come to realize something else, something far better: This is actually a fascinating time of opportunity, a chance for you and your generation to re-imagine journalism, to put your own stamp, your own ideas, on our venerable profession. Already, there is an astonishing array of experimentation and change going on in journalism today, some of it at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

As many of us see it, the problems in media today are not really a crisis in journalism per se. In fact, journalism is expanding rapidly into a multimedia, interactive process with exciting opportunities for storytelling that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Yes, you can still put words on paper, and I hope many of you do that. But you can also tell stories with video, audio, web packages, blogs, podcasts, slide shows, or interactive journalism personalized for an audience of one. You will think in new ways and be fluent across media platforms. In the process, you will transform journalism.

The problem, of course, is how to support quality journalism in this brave new world. Or to put it in the vernacular of the day: Where are the new business models to support our work?

There’s no question that the old model has broken down, like a once grand Packard sedan. Content that once commanded a decent price is now routinely available free on line. And advertising rates online are just a fraction of what they were in traditional print and broadcast.

But I am optimistic, largely because of the exciting changes and experiments now underway. Let me cite three broad changes.

First, I envision new revenue streams for media. Some of it may come from delivery charges for distribution on cell phones, computer tablets, or e-readers like Kindle. Some of it may come when other newspapers, not just The Wall Street Journal or Cook’s Illustrated, start charging for at least some of their content. And some of it may come from new ways of distributing magazines in digital formats – such as the new consortium just announced by Time, Inc., Conde Nast, Hearst, and Meredith.

Second, your work will be distributed on news outlets that simply didn’t exist when we opened this School three and a half years ago – sites like Politico, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, GlobalPost, Kaiser Health News, NBC’s Local Interactive Media, and dozens of others. These new sites have hired hundreds of journalists, including some of our graduates. Have these gains offset the job loss in traditional media? No, but the transition is underway.

Third, we will likely see a profitable revolution in local coverage. It’s the hyperlocal model you’ve heard so much about – a combination of professional and local citizens covering their communities in great detail – their schools, health care, immigration, housing, sports, and so on. There are many hyperlocal sites out there already: The Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, Chi-Town News, West Seattle blog, the New Haven Independent, and Baristanet.com in Montclair, NJ. Some of them are foundation supported, some make money on their own, and some are experiments, including The Local in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, run by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and The New York Times, and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

In the midst of all this ferment, we were asked a blunt question last August by the Knight Foundation: What do you want this school to stand for? To be known for?

Well, there are many answers. We want to be known for attracting a strong and diverse student body. We want to be known for a program that blends the eternal verities of traditional journalism – the reporting, the writing, the critical thinking, the ethical values – with the multi-platform fluency required in the world of new media. We want to turn out great journalists.

But is that enough in this day and age?

Well, the blunt answer is no. And all of us in this auditorium realize it. For great journalism to survive and prosper, we as a School have to confront the business model question. And so we will, under the auspices of The Tow Center for Journalistic Innovation. We will expand on the entrepreneurial journalism course we now offer. We will expand on our hyperlocal projects. We will expand our research on new business models. We will take on the challenge.

All of this is in support of the long-term goal: to harness technology to the cause of great journalism. We must break stories. We must do investigative reporting. We must do storytelling narratives. We must provide understanding, meaning, synthesis, context, insight – and on our best days something approaching wisdom. Even in a link economy, there must be something worth linking to.

Yes, I know the next year or two look challenging. But I’m confident your generation will be a force for great change. You are on your way, and we are proud of you. We know you will do well, bringing honor to yourselves, to our School, and to our profession. I thank you for the privilege of being your dean.