Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Disappearing ink

By Michael Freedman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Advertiser photo illustration

spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
spacer spacer

I would like to share with you something I read this morning over coffee:

"The Honolulu Advertiser's mission is to chronicle Hawai'i's story while being a vigilant partner in helping the Islands shape their future. To be diligent, truthful, accurate and fair. To provide a voice for all of the community. To reflect a love and understanding of this place and its people. To honor Hawai'i's ethnic, cultural and social diversity. To cherish the land and sea. To perpetuate the qualities of aloha tolerance, humility, sharing and respect. To inform, educate and entertain. To be Hawai'i's newspaper."

What an eloquent and admirable mission statement that is.

Now I would like to read you part of what the newsroom staff was told on Feb. 25, the day the sale of The Advertiser was announced:

"From a fiduciary responsibility standpoint to our shareholders, it was the right thing to do."

Welcome to the 21st century, where journalistic idealism meets fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.

This morning, the future of a newspaper that has served this community and all of Hawai'i since 1856 an entity that has been part of the fabric of this community, part of its heart and soul is now in doubt. Perhaps it will survive and thrive. The odds are not in its favor.

The fears of journalists are justified and the problems of our news gathering organizations are very real.

Yet, facing two ongoing wars and the effects of this devastating recession, Americans the people are perhaps not as concerned as we might soon be about this transformation of journalism.

It has likely not hit home yet to most people that one day soon in some of our cities, we may be without credible coverage of our local politicians, schools, businesses, and the police and fire departments. And it goes without saying that credible, local investigative journalism could disappear in many cities.

There has been little reason, until now, for the general public to understand where their news comes from. In large part, they are unaware that as newspapers go down, so does "the quantity of quality content."

People are unaware that The Associated Press, the world's largest news gathering organization, is dependent, to a large degree, on member newspapers for its operating budget and a certain amount of shared content.

As newspapers fail, the job of the AP gets tougher. And if not for the AP and our major news organizations, many online aggregators would have little if anything of substance to post.

There is no question we live in a stunning age of global communication, an age in which everyone can be the media and where anyone operating out of their kitchen can reach the same number of people as our most respected news organizations.

We saw a great example of the impact of new technology in the tweets from Iran after their elections.

But what we saw was a series of flashing lights. And it was hard, if not impossible, to see the big picture from the individual postings. To add context we turned to our traditional journalistic entities.

In the end, it proved that we still need to be able to turn to entities we can trust.

To those in the news business, this is what still separates "pajama journalists" and "citizen journalists" from news gathering organizations. And in this digital democracy, we want to strive to achieve a tower of strength, not a Tower of Babel.

Today, as predictions abound about the demise of newspapers, we have looming larger every day the race to find the magic potion called "the new business model."

It may be right in front of us.

We were told consumers would not pay for television when it was free for the price of an antenna on your roof. Today, 62.6 million Americans pay for basic cable. We were told nobody would pay for radio as long as it's free. Today, 20 million people have paid subscriptions to Sirius-XM Satellite Radio.

Today we are told virtually nobody will pay for online news content. Yet, the number of paid subscribers for the Wall Street Journal.com is more than 1 million.

What we may need most today is not a new business model, although we need it. What we need most right now is leadership.

We need more executives who understand the importance of content and credibility as well as business models and new technology. And make no mistake about it, content should be an equal player at the table.

In 1958, Edward R. Murrow the patron saint of broadcast news delivered an address. He closed with the following passage about television, a passage we can apply to all forms of communication today. Murrow told his audience

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television can be useful."

Today, we have at our fingertips more information than Edward R. Murrow could have ever imagined. And while the sheer volume seems sometimes to threaten to swallow us whole, in this cacophony of voices there is a beautiful diversity and the promise of not merely 15 minutes of fame, but of deeper connections across a global divide.

If we use what we have to those ends.

My hope is that (there will be) a larger public dialogue. We need committed leadership to step forward and help the public understand what we've built and what's at stake. People need to be reminded of what our newspapers mean to their communities and what they do accomplish, still, on a daily basis. It's not about hard copy or the Internet. It's about content you can trust.

If your lights go out, you want the electric company to turn them back on. If your water stops running, you want the utility to get your service back. If you pay your bills, that will likely happen.

But when your newspaper stops publishing and you ask for it to resume whether in print or online the public needs to know it likely cannot happen. Once these editorial infrastructures are destroyed, they will not likely be rebuilt, at least not to the degree that we enjoy now.

In the end, we know or should know there is a price to pay for freedom. And there is a cost to maintaining a free, vibrant and credible press.

Michael Freedman is professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University and is a former general manager of CBS Radio Network News. He delivered these comments at the NewsMorphosis 2.0 event held March 18 in Honolulu.