Robert Picard Optimistic About Journalism, Not News Bureaucracies

As part of Leonard Witt’s video series on the Future of Journalism he spoke with Robert Picard, a well respected media economist; when Witt asked him the big question about the Future of Journalism, Picard responded:

I’m very optimistic about the future of news and journalism. I’m not as optimistic about large bureaucratized organizations that have created situations that they now can’t change from very easily.

That’s a theme in these Future of Journalism interviews that has been echoed by several of the interviewees in the series, but for now let’s listen to Picard (the transcript is below the video.)

Leonard Witt: Hi, I’m Len Witt and I’m at Yale for who will pay for the messenger conference dealing with journalism; and I’m with Robert Picard. I’ll let you introduce yourself.

Robert Picard: I’m Robert Picard and I’m editor of the Journal of Media Business Studies, business school professor, former journalist, editor and publisher who went over to the dark side.

Witt: I must say he’s been writing some great stuff for a long time, about journalism economics, and who will pay for the news, etc. So what do you think the future of journalism is going to look like?

Picard: I think the future of journalism will be quite a bit different than what we see it being currently and what we’ve known it for the last 50 years or so. It’ll be smaller organizations in the long run will be involved — more specialized organizations, those devoted to specialized coverage of localities in the country. Those devoted to specialized topics such as health, or military affairs, international diplomacy things of those sorts. We will have a range of sources of information that are different from what we have today. Most news organizations up until now have tried to create a buffet of choices of news that was something for everybody and some things that many people didn’t use, and that will not be sustainable in the future environment nor desirable in the future environment, because of the way people are making choices, the way people are personalizing news selections and the way people are using modern technology.

Witt: I run the Center for Sustaining Journalism at Kennesaw State University, a university outside of Atlanta; and one of the models we are thinking about are cooperatives where we go out to people and say, “Are you interested in civil rights, social justice reporting? Will you value that enough to actually pay to be part of a cooperative and actually own that kind of journalism?” What do you think of that model?

Picard: I think there are many models that are going to come forward. Some will be commercially funded, some will be funded by foundations, some will be funded by memberships, some will be funded because people think that certain kinds of coverage just needs to be done and there’s going to be a range of these kinds of things working and cooperatives is certainly one for certain kinds of coverage where people want to see that that coverage is maintained and that certain communities or certain topics are covered in the way that they aren’t covered today.

Witt: So what do you think about the quality of journalism, and how long it’s going to take to sort of work itself out to have high quality, ethically sound journalism in the future, if we’re going to have it?

Picard: Well one has to; we start from a standpoint that I’m not so sure we have great quality right now.

Witt: Ok

Picard: But what we have to do more then anything else is discover new techniques for verifying the quality. We always had journalist that went out and talked to three, four or five sources at a crash or people that had observed an event to try to understand what went on there. Now we’re dealing with bringing in information from the public, from tweets, from other such things and we haven’t developed the techniques for deciding which is authoritative or how many of the crowdsourcing kind of things that exist is enough to begin to get a picture of what might be true and accurate. So we’ve got some issues there.

We also have to be careful in saying that the only people that are good at understanding events are trained journalist. The fact is that there are many lawyers in the courts that have a very good understanding of what’s going on in the courts. There are many specialists on science sitting at universities, working at companies and other such things that have a great deal of knowledge about science that is much beyond what any journalist would have. There are many people sitting in banks and financial institutions that have a much better understanding of those than many journalists do. So to just say because they’re not trained journalist doesn’t ensure quality is not good enough. What we have to do though is have a way of beginning to think differently about who the sources are, and making it transparent of who and what their backgrounds are and why they speak authoritatively or do not.

Witt: So I’ve been reading your stuff for quite awhile and for awhile it seemed like wow this is pretty pessimistic stuff, are you a pessimist or an optimist; what do you think?

Picard: It depends on what we’re talking about. I’m very optimistic about the future of news and journalism. I’m not as optimistic about large bureaucratized organizations that have created situations that they now can’t change from very easily.

Witt: Can you name a couple of those?

Picard: Well you can go through any of the major media companies, or especially vulnerable, The New York Times, the Tribune Company; which of course is in bankruptcy; the McClatchy Company. What they’ve done is created structures that have such high overheads, such high debt loads that it’s very difficult for them to walk away from the current models and make it work, and the only thing that they can figure to do is to do massive cost cutting that is hurting the quality of what they are doing. But they’re really not transforming themselves into organizations that are able to change very easily.

Witt: I thought the New York Times was kind of trying that, you don’t think they’re trying that?

Picard: They’re trying, but they’ve gone….. Essentially what they’ve done, all the changes that they’ve done in the last two years, and they’ve done some serious changes; selling their building and lease back arrangements and other such things have helped them pay debt down a bit. But they’re still carrying huge loads of debts, with huge organizational structures, with huge numbers of bureaus, with huge numbers of journalists doing lots of things. They’re going to have to think whether that is going to be enough to do what they want to do. I think what’s going to happen with many of these news organizations, they’re going to have to become much more focused on what they cover and how they cover it. The New York Times for the nation at least has been a critical component for international and national news coverage. For people living on Manhattan it’s been an important part of local news for them. We in the rest of the country see them for other kinds of functions.

Witt: Yeah but you know I was talking to somebody, who in Kentucky heads the rural journalism project, and he asked me who covers the rural America better than anyone else.

Picard: Who covers rural America? That‘s a really good question.

Witt: And it was The New York Times.

Picard: And it might be. It might be, but these are things that one has to decide. What do we do best and what can we do. Do we have to have all the food columnists? Do we have to have all the people covering entertainment news? Do we have to have all of the people covering sports the way we do? Different companies are going to come to different answers to that depending on what they do best and the roles that they serve for their readers.

Witt: Well my own feeling about The New York Times has always been if you want to join the middle class you read The New York Times because they’ll tell you what food to eat, what restaurants to go to, what books to read, what movies to see, and what you should be thinking in many ways. It is an entrée into a certain tribe of people around the country.

Picard: Most certainly it is. There is no question it is, but The New York Times is not the average American newspaper.

Witt: Right, of course.

Picard: And that becomes the real problem. We’re talking about the New York Times, the Washington Post, and we’re talking about the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Chicago Tribune. We’re talking about unique institutions that play roles far beyond their local communities; the majority of newspapers and the majority of television station news operations are really local operations, and they have a different set of opportunities. They have a different set of problems than the large metropolitan papers do, and the large metropolitan papers have a whole set of problems that are different from the local papers.

Witt: Great! Thank you very much.

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