The Atlanta Press Club and The Commerce Club Proudly Partner to Present:
THE FUTURE OF THE NEWS
A conversation with Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor, New York Times, and
Alex Taylor, Executive Vice President, Cox Enterprises
Moderated by Commerce Club Board of Directors’ Member and former President of CNN, Tom Johnson
To a luxurious 49th floor ballroom packed wall to wall with nearly 300 Commerce Club and Atlanta Press Club (APC) members, their guests, service staff, and camera crews, Margaret Sullivan, perched gingerly atop a riser, appeared slight. Her statements throughout the event, mostly about maintaining the integrity of the news, however, were anything but.
“Some people want to read about foreign affairs, and some people want to read about Jennifer Anniston’s baby,” proffered Sullivan, not mincing any words.
This alarming crescendo – from readers and viewers, pushing those who produce our daily news to give the general public more and more phenomenolism, at the risk of abandoning truth, the stuff fair journalism is supposed to be all about – is growing in volume.
Others who were present for the recent speaker luncheon event and who work in these same fields rallied loudly behind Sullivan, known for her direct focus on journalistic accuracy and integrity, and her flippant statement.
One, Maria Saporta, of the Atlanta Business Chronicle and SaportaReport.com, adamently agreed. “There is such a low barrier to entry into this world. Get it first, but first, get it right. There is a difference between solid journalism and all the clutter that is out there.”
This clutter, found in your inbox’s spam, vying for your attention on your social media, on billboards, in line at the supermarket check-out, was described by Alex Taylor as an interference with truth, something that the public has had no choice but to learn to live with.
“We are living in the Wild West where people don’t understand where [facts] come from. Google just can’t do that for you,” admitted Taylor. Not to be dismayed, however, he ultimately predicts the tide’s turn. “With time, people will want less static and more signal.”
That signal, that lone beacon that steadily shines, stubbornly resisting the darkness of media sensationalism, points the way for the Future of the News. Indeed, its core, the very DNA of good, sound media, has not changed. Its future, like its past, is about levereging accuracy, perspective, integrity, and balance to help make our world better. Public service has always been, and quietly still is, what news is all about.
An Editor for Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), which Tom Johnson, like a jolly, proud Papa, boasted has never been better, explicated the science behind it, “There’s a balance between giving the audience what they want to know and giving them what they need to know.”
No small feat to perform before an audience of consumers who, all agreed, feels a deep and growing cynicism for their sources of news.
“Different consumers want different things, and they will find it, because it’s available,” dictated Sullivan.
The problem, of course, is that all (perhaps most) of these available sources are not even remotely reliable. Reposts and retweets, which number in the millions daily, never stop to beg the question, Hey, where’d ya get your facts? They exist as much for idle amusement as they do for accuracy.
Johnson, a dinosaur in the news industry, described these faltering facts as a crisis not just for journalism but for American democracy.
“The Washington Post continues to do outstanding journalism. The New York Times and COX Enterprises – their commitment to quality is the exception in America today. [And] the type of indispensable, interrogative reporting that the Atlanta Journal Constitution is now doing is vital to the community. In my old days in Washington, there were reporters you couldn’t get away from. Atlanta has one of these,” Johnson continued, referencing Saporta. “I have tremendous admiration for her enterprise.”
But enterprise, that gritty, homegrown value which is brother to hard work, is difficult to come by these days. For one, it is seemingly far more lucrative to fabricate a story about Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, or Kimye (the not particularly clever name given to newlywed couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West by the not particularly clever paparazzi) than it is to disseminate verifiable facts backed up by local, watchdog investigation.
Frankly, not everyone wants to be a Saporta.
For another, many news sources, online and off, simply fail to look at the bigger picture. They have yet to ask themselves what news means to society at large. With an audience nodding in accord, all panelists agreed that giving the American people transparency and encouraging them to make better decisions needs to trump revenue earning as top priority.
“The passion,” elaborated Sullivan, “around watchdog journalism has never been greater at our company. We’re committed to it.” In times of uncertainty and upheaval, commitment like this is remarkably invaluable. “With three [branches of government] there is still corruption,” she continued. “There has to be a fourth branch, one that watches the watchers.”
Without it, chaos, it seems, will ensue.
“Things get rampantly out of control without a good fourth estate,” acceded COX’s Taylor.
Even with that obligatory fourth estate in place, and, with it, its values of fairness, accuracy, and integrity, every one of the day’s speakers admitted that the industry has had to make adjustments and will continue to have to make adjustments in the years to come. It goes without saying that, as technology continues to evolve, the media and those who provide it must evolve as well.
Sullivan, who has been accused of editing while female, described this evolution, these necessary changes, as more than just a few minor growing pains.
“Vast upheavel. We’re going through a change like that right now. We really can’t get a handle on that. Print is in serious decline. I love the smell of ink, but the truth is, we’re not going back to that heyday. We’re all scrambling to find a way to thrive and survive.”
Thrive and survive is putting it mildly, considering she went on to concede that there will be no future print edition of the New York Times, if trends continue as they are.
Described as unusual, exciting, and scary, these times of uncertainty brought out a certain spunk in Sullivan and the others. Anything but disheartened, like David against their Goliath, they seemed more alive in the face of the challenge at hand.
Johnson, Sullivan, and Taylor, all of whom represent what is best in journalism today, never seemed to shy from their present reality. They openly discussed the importance of teaching news literacy in the classroom; using transparency as a new form of objectivity; utilizing new avenues of technology (Sullivan went so far as to rave about her affinity for Twitter, “I haven’t seen anything that’s as useful to me. What is going to have the impact of Twitter? I haven’t seen anything as dominant as that.”); and implementing strategic business models, those which specifically incorporate the idea of breaking news “bundles” into smaller, consumable pieces (referred to as a la carte pricing), as various means to an end that guarantees a future for the news.
Though heavy in its content, the conversation was closed rather light-heartedly with comments by Sullivan.
“I might have been oversold a little bit,” she joked. “I can’t say what the future of news is. I challenge anyone in the world to say what the future of news is. Everyone is trying something new. We have to be quick to try something new, quick to abandon things that don’t work. Now, consumer revenue has surpassed advertising revenue. This is heartening because it means something is working. We all want something that is working.”
We do, yes, want something that is working. We also want something that is promising. We have inspiring individuals such as these, our gatekeepers, to thank for providing us with both. The future of the news has never been brighter.
THE COMMERCE CLUB WOULD LIKE TO THANK
THE FOLLOWING SPONSORS FOR THIS EVENT:
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution
The Coca-Cola Company
McKenna, Long & Aldridge
The Future of the News
For additional information about the Atlanta Press Club, please email
For additional information about membership at The Commerce Club, please email
Kira Hullinger at Kira.Hullinger@ourclub.com
Paul Selby at Paul.Selby@ourclub.com