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Civic Discourse, Truth, and the Future of Journalism

Walker Evans Walker Evans Civic Discourse, Truth, and the Future of JournalismPhoto by Walker Evans.
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National industry leaders in journalism gathered yesterday afternoon for a discussion on the topic of “Civic Discourse, Truth, and the Future of Journalism” at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Downtown Phoenix, AZ. The discussion served as the kick-off to the annual CEOs for Cities National Meeting, which Columbus served as host to in 2016.

The journalism discussion was opened with some historical perspective illustrated by Leonard Downie, Former Executive Editor & VP of The Washington Post. Via Skype, he recalled a time when the American public was served by three television stations, a handful of national periodicals and dependable local newspaper outlets. He went on to say that contemporary news publications have faced a lot of new challenges.

“The digital revolution has undermined the financial model of the news business,” he explained. “Anyone can be an editor in chief, and as a result there’s not as many agreed upon facts anymore. People are seeking out their own stories and their own facts, which coincides with a gradual polarization of the country. That started with the Vietnam War and has gotten worse in recent years.”

Eric Newton, founding Managing Editor of Newseum, agreed with Downie on the challenges that the industry faces, but explained that a look in the mirror was needed to figure out who was to blame. He said that when the users of social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are the ones who share fake news stories from unreliable sources, the blame can’t be fully placed upon the digital platforms themselves.

“We are the weak link in the communications delivery system,” stated Newton. “Our population is expressing difficulty in telling the difference between news and opinion, between news and advertisements, and between real news and fabricated news. We are not as news literate as we need to be.”

When it comes to national and global news, Julia Wallace, former Editor-in-Chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is bullish, but expresses a growing concern for local media.

“We have a huge national ecosystem getting better and stronger,” she stated. “Vox, Vice, Politico… there are a lot of new players doing great work in all sorts of areas. But I am very concerned about the economics of the local press and concerned about people feeling connected. People need strong local information.”

She went on to point out that the U.S. has an issue with “news deserts” — communities that are lacking in local journalism the same way that “food deserts” are causing nutritional issues in neighborhoods with food insecurity problems.

“The number of reporters and journalists is diminishing quickly — with newspapers in particular, but also in radio and TV,” she added. “There has been a significant change over the past year, and there is so much focus on Washington that we’re not paying attention to our own communities. There’s equally interesting changes going on in the places where we live.”

Phil Boas, Editorial Department Director at The Arizona Republic echoed similar views on the changes with technology, but made a point that the effects of disruption are not isolated to just the news publishing industry.

“We are in a moment of global technological change that affects economies dramatically,” he explained. “The steamroller that is the internet came in and changed our business model. But if I could switch places with a journalism student today, I would do it in a heartbeat. The business that I came into was well established — print has been around for hundreds of years and we were operated the same way they did in Ben Franklin’s day. New journalism students have all kinds of tools to tell stories with, and new skills that all serve to tell the story in ways we’ve never done before.”

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