The Future of Journalism

It is the question that now haunts journalists, academics and other First Amendment defenders. Dwindling audiences, revenues, news holes and newsrooms have all contributed to fears and anxiety -- especially among veteran professionals. Imagine that The New York Times ceases to print a newspaper in favor of online distribution, high school newspapers in Kansas are no longer published because of a lack of jobs in the field, or that the reporter role includes entrepreneur. All were not conjecture this week, but rather serious discussions in local and national journalism.

Against this backdrop, I witnessed a rather poignant moment. The retired publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, Harold Andersen, pressed the new University of Nebraska-Lincoln Dean of Journalism and Mass Communications Garry Kebbel (fresh from four years at the forward-looking Knight Foundation in Miami) about the need to save the printed word.

A generation of newspaper readers clings to the printed newspaper, as the industry and journalism thinkers see less need for it with each passing day. In search of revenue streams to replace lost classified advertising dollars, newspapers focus on iPad and smart phone applications, which offer rich media and the potential to erect effective pay walls.

Yet, as the business of journalism dominates current management thinking, I occasionally take a moment to look into the eyes of the men and women who dedicate their work to the search for truths through aggressive and investigative journalism. There may be what researchers call a "spiral of silence" squelching dissent and dissonance about the model that seeks to place the art of solid reporting and writing within multimedia, backpack and entrepreneurial journalism. The logical end game of this direction is that all of journalism -- print, radio, television, magazine -- ultimately find their way to data streams for the Web and mobile media.

In the heyday of American journalism the U.S. Supreme Court carved a unique place for newspaper journalism. It had the broadest First Amendment protection under the theory that we need an unfettered press to check government power, challenge authority, expose abuses and inform the public. This is more than theory. Solid newspaper reporting has uncovered financial scandal, unearthed hypocrisy and brought down university chancellors, governors, senators and even a president. Without the perspective of independent journalism, legal scholars reasoned, voter decision-making might be poor. Broadcast journalists have been relegated to a "second class" legal status under the model, even as television news emerged as a political force. It has often been the depth of newspaper journalism that was distinct.

So, the future of journalism question has implications for the future of democracy and freedom. Will newspaper and Internet freedoms merge to offer a vibrant brand of journalism? Or, will the shift to electronic media weaken the Fourth Estate?

At a June visit to Bloomberg's New York office, I was among a group of professors who saw its glass walls -- symbolic of the news agency's philosophy of transparency. We hear that word a lot these days. It is usually followed by words, such as engagement, brand and target market. However, one hour into our tour at Bloomberg, we were told that everything seen, heard, photographed and video recorded was "off the record." Transparency, apparently, is an internal organizational value and not for the public.

David Mathison of Be The Media believes we are in the midst of renaissance. Each of us has the power to produce and disseminate media messages. In such a world, what is the place for professional journalism? The future of journalism now seems destined to reside in a neighborhood that includes blogs, tweets, videos, slide shows, branding, marketing, data and technological innovation. It is both exciting and worrisome.

We'll explore these ideas during our Omaha 10-10-10 conference, October 9-11 at UNO and the Omaha Press Club. Some of the best minds will try to place change within context. In every time, people have found reasons to feel uneasy, while others see new opportunity.