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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Saigon, Cairo and Moscow

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Flickr: chase_elliott
Flickr: chase_elliott

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Is there life after newspapers?

Of course there is; especially if you talk to Hedrick Smith (See his personal website ), Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former correspondent for the New York Times, who left the paper in 1988 after 26 years, having covered Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle, serving a tour of duty in Saigon covering the Vietnam War, immersing himself in the Middle East conflicts from Cairo, the Cold War from both Moscow and Washington as well as reporting on six American presidents and their administrations.

In 1971 as the Times chief diplomatic correspondent , Smith was a member of the team which produced the Pentagon Papers series, and in 1974, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe.

Since leaving the Times over two decades ago, Smith decided to get serious about his contribution to American journalism.

The former Times Washington Bureau Chief has gone on to publish five books and produced more than 50 hours of long-form documentary television. His most recent book, Who Stole the American Dream?, which came out in September 2012, landed on the New York Times national bestseller's list, while remaining a best seller in a number of cities.

Smith considers his latest effort, Who Stole the American Dream his best so far. "It is sharp on the central issues of our society, economy and politics today and probably for years to come.'' "Working on it'' Smith said, "certainly changed my own thinking and writing.''

Another highly successful book of his was The Russians, based on his years as New York Times' Moscow Bureau Chief from 1971-74, which smashed the charts as a No. 1 American best-seller. It has since been translated into 16 languages and has been widely used in university and college courses. That book was followed by yet another national best-seller, The Power Game: How Washington Works', an influential political masterpiece considered a bible for newly elected members of Congress and their staffs, and became bedside reading for President Clinton, a master politician in his own right.

For PBS since 1989, Smith has created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series on such hotly debated and much discussed topics as terrorism, Wall Street, Soviet perestroika, Walmart, Enron, tax evasion, educational reform, health care and Washington's power game. Two of his Frontline programs, The Wall Street Fix and Can You Afford to Retire? won Emmys, while two others, Critical Condition and Tax Me If You Can were nominated.

On two different occasions, Smith either won or shared the Columbia-Dupont Gold Baton, or grand prize, for best public affairs program on U.S. television for Inside Gorbachev's USSR in 1990, and for Inside the Terror Network in 2002, an investigation of the al Qaeda pilots who carried out the 9/11 attack and how the U.S. failed to stop them. In addition to the George Polk, George Peabody and Sidney Hillman awards for reporting excellence, his programs have won two national public service awards.

Asked about the calamitous state of the newspaper industry with more downsizing, buyouts or layoffs being announced seemingly every other week, Smith said, "The print newspaper business obviously faces enormous challenges and probably another decade of sorting out and finding a way into the future, but I believe that news organizations of some kind will continue to exist because there is a fairly large elite that wants and demands quality news that can only be produced by established news organizations such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, NPR, PBS, and others.''

Does he have any practical remedies to revive the newspaper industry?

"My hunch'' Smith tells me, "is that some news organizations over time will find ways to form collaboratives with elements of the nonprofit world such as libraries, universities and all kinds of charitable organizations. All those institutions have a strong self-interest in preserving and fueling the flow of quality information being produced and circulated among civil leaders and decision-makers.''

The most important change, as Smith sees it, is that the news industry is going to have to drastically change how it markets and disseminates news. What Smith finds most irksome is the way college-educated younger generations having been getting news for free, which Google encourages by cannibalizing news gathered by news organizations at terribly high cost and distributes free of charge.

Smith strongly believes that "quality news costs a lot of money to produce, a lot of trained, educated, dedicated, very hard working people to produce and so you cannot just expect to pluck it off the Internet tree like so much ripe fruit.''

According to Smith, it will be the responsibility of media managers and owners to impress upon the current generation of college students that quality news coverage is worth paying for if they expect to have successful careers, understand the complexities of the world, make political and personal decisions and lead interesting lives.

The Emmy Award producer, Pulitzer Prize recipient and bestselling author is confident that the news world of 2025 may look quite different from the news world of 2000, "but there will be a news world with perhaps more secure footing than today's.''

Born in Kilmacolm, Scotland and educated at The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut (where he earned a B.A. in American history and literature) Smith's first newspaper reporting job was with the Greenville (S.C.) News during the 1950s. After graduating from Williams College, doing graduate work as a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and serving three years in the U.S. Air Force, he landed at United Press International in Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta from 1959 through 1962. He was hired by the New York Times in 1962 where he remained until 1988. While working for the Times, he was chosen for a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1969-70.

Smith informs me he is married to Susan Zox, an artist, a supremely good chef and wonderfully entertaining and bright life companion. They have four children, two step daughters and eight grandchildren.

This article was cross-posted from NewspaperAlum.com.