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Martha St Jean

Martha St Jean

Posted April 24, 2009 | 06:20 PM (EST)

Ken Lerer, Huffington Post Co-Founder on the Future of Journalism


Kenneth Lerer, the co-founder and chairman of The Huffington Post, spoke tonight about the changing tide of the news industry. In a talk entitled how "How We Got Here and How We Get Out of Here," Lerer spoke about why and how newspapers did not see signs that have led to many of the problems that they are currently facing.

The problem, he said, has been that newspaper companies have been, "able to grow without innovation."

Lerer said, "Traditional media outlets could have developed online," but four things came together creating what he termed the "perfect storm."

1. The Innovator's Dilemma - newspapers were ignoring the online medium and focusing solely on print. The companies put themselves in a position where they could not compete.
2. Increased Competition - websites began to attract attention and traffic.
3. Changing News Cycle - print is inherently unable to adapt to this problem. He spoke of July 7, 2005, a day that will be remembered for the London bombings. The cover of The New York Times did cover London - but a London excited over winning the 2012 Olympic bid.
4. Current Economic Crisis - need I say more?

"Media today is a networked ecosystem. It's all about originating, aggregating, linking and spurring conversation."

It was the annual Hearst Foundation New Media Lecture at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. In his speech, Lerer gave journalists, like myself, hope for the future. He said not only will journalism "survive" it will "flourish," and that we must assure that places like The New York Times achieve success.

As a journalist, I can admit to feeling the panic. As a looking-for-work journalist, I feel the dread. Everyday, there appears to be more layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks, newspaper and television station closings.

From the LA Times to the New York Times, no one is exempt. The New York Times Co. announced a $74 million first quarter loss this Tuesday. There was a 27 percent drop in advertising revenue. The Boston Globe may shut down this year if the unions do not agree to certain concessions.

To say, as it does on the NPR website, that "aspiring young reporters are feeling uneasy about job prospects upon graduation," is an understatement. Read more here about the state of panic among members of my generation.

Yet, Lerer urges us to look beyond the headlines. He admits that we will not know what the future of journalism will look like but that "the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers."

Lerer quoted a friend who said that, "Ubiquity is the new exclusivity."

He listed the following ten items as methods people are suggesting to save journalism. (Number 10 is my favorite.)

1. Build wall gardens
2. Give newspapers tax subsidies
3. Hyperspecialization
4. Establish gatekeepers
5. Micro payments ( News would be like I-tunes.)
6. Newspapers as aggregators
7. Focus on analysis not newsgathering
8. Close down the presses today
9. Foundation support - journalist would apply for not for profit grants in order to complete stories.
10. Another Washington bailout - The Newspaper Revitalization Act.

Lerer posed this important question, "If digital news is the future, how much of the old system can we, should we preserve?"

In the question and answer portion of the evening Lerer said, "Online news is different then print and they need to adjust and start planning for a future without a printing press. If I owned a newspaper, I would move to a hybrid model immediately."

But what should journalism schools do to keep up with the times? In, "Columbia J-School's Existential Crisis," New York Magazine wrote:

The media bloodbath hasn't made for happy days at Columbia Journalism School. When the Times recently announced that its new, hyperlocal blog experiment "The Local" would be assisted by journalism students not from Columbia but from the City University of New York, you could practically hear the collective gasp echoing in the hallowed halls uptown. CUNY? Since when does CUNY trump Columbia? Well, since digital journalism became the single ray of hope on an otherwise dark media horizon, and Columbia's vaunted ability to train students as print reporters began to appear obsolete.

Ken Lerer, who is also the Hearst New Media Professional-in-Residence, at Columbia's j-school said, "I think Columbia has to move just like The New York Times has to move." Lerer also said that the basics of journalism are still necessary, but the school needs to serve its students and what they want.


"Journalism isn't in jeopardy," he continued, "It's just in transition."

"Even though the Internet made revolutionary advances possible, newspaper publishers saw little incentive to make major changes."

Lerer's message to those in the print world who are contemplating change, "Stop arguing and just do it. That's the bottom line."