THE BLOG

How the Smartphone Rules the Brave New World of Journalism

05/18/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

I never got to be a Nieman Fellow when I was a journalist. But I got to be a Nieman Father.

That's because my daughter Kitty is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism. She's one of 24 journalists from around the globe taking a break from their jobs as reporters, editors, columnists, bureau chiefs, digital leaders and news executives in print, broadcast and online media.

And best of all, this Jurassic journalist got to meet the other young men and women whom Nieman Curator Ann Marie Lipinski is helping navigate the brave new world of journalism as it moves from Gutenberg to Google -- and to Apple and Facebook and The Huffington Post and Twitter and YouTube, etc., etc.

There are 12 American and 12 foreign Fellows. In addition to Kitty, the American Fellows include such impressive up-and-comers as Henry Chu, the London bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times who is trying to find out why major developing countries such as China and India have not achieved political change as significant as it has been elsewhere; Farnaz Fassihi, a senior Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Beirut who is focusing on how Islamic militants on both sides of the sectarian Sunni-Shiite divide are utilizing modern technology to organize, recruit, spread their influence and crush opponents; Ann Marimow, a reporter at the Washington Post is looking at conflicts between U.S. national security interests, privacy protections and press freedoms; and Denise Marie Ordway, who covers higher education for the Orlando Sentinel and is developing performance-based funding models for state universities to understand their effect on instructional quality, tuition rates and degree completion and how these models affect universities with large minority enrollments, including historically black institutions.

My application for a Nieman Fellowship was rejected when I was a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Knight-Ridder Newspapers in the 1970s. I had to settle for a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics at Harvard after working for Vice President Mondale.

But as I renewed my tenuous ties to Harvard -- a magic word that opens doors all over the world, which is why I always said "when I was at Harvard" instead of "I graduated from Harvard" -- I learned what Kitty, who took leave from National Public Radio in Washington, and her fellow Nieman Fellows have done in the year that they are about to finish.

But until I rubbed shoulders with Kitty and her colleagues, I didn't realize how much digital technology, especially the smartphone, now determines how we inform ourselves about the world around us. As Joshua Benton put it in the spring issue of Neiman Reports, we are now part of a "mobile majority."

"It would be an exaggeration to say that the rise of the smartphone is a shift on par with the rise of the Web," he writes. "But it wouldn't be that much of one. Seven years after the iPhone, smartphones have moved from a tool of the tech elite to a handheld computer in everyone's pocket. They're radically changing how people are getting their news. And I fear that many news outlets still haven't wrestled with how big a change they represent."

Two dramatic examples of how technology and news media industries are realigning themselves around smartphones occurred in the middle of my visit, when Verizon announced it has acquired AOL -- including The Huffington Post -- for $4.4 billion, and Facebook said it will create a mobile newsstand to make the works of nine media companies, including The New York Times, available to its subscribers. Verizon hopes to compete with Google and Facebook for Internet advertising via mobile video.

I saw and heard about how smartphones now dominate not only how we get the news but how we navigate our social and professional lives as the Nieman Fellows talked about their time at Harvard and about what they will do when they leave after Harvard President Drew Faust hosts a farewell dinner for them on Tuesday. Kitty was constantly checking her smartphone to learn of changes in meeting schedules, texting to friends we were to meet for dinner who were running late, etc.

And when I accompanied her to the MIT Media Lab at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I heard a bevy of journalists and entrepreneurs from Egypt, Indonesia, Cuba, Russia, Spain, South Korea, China, Chile, South Africa, Great Britain, Serbia and France describe programs that someday may rival Facebook and Twitter.

When I arrived back in Washington, Kitty sent me via Facebook her account of our exhausting schedule and proudly informed me that more than 100 people liked it.

Welcome to the mobile majority and the brave new world of journalism. Despite my difficulty in understanding how it works, I like it.