The Dawning of a New Age

Eric Newton at U of Nebraska College of Journalism

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, delivered this talk on April 7, 2011, to more than 300 parents, students and faculty at the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska. He discussed the excitement and fears of journalists in the age of digital news and the proliferation of “comfort news.”

Thanks very much to your dean — and American news pioneer — Gary Kebbel for the invitation to deliver the Seline Memorial Lecture here at your great university tonight, truly one of the top journalism and mass communication programs in the country.

I remember when Gary first came to Knight Foundation. Here’s the guy who helped build America Online into the biggest digital news site of its time. And he was going to help us at Knight become philanthropic leaders in the risky world of media innovation.

On his first day, I glanced over at him, and he looks terrified, paralyzed. He’s just sitting there. So I say, “What’s wrong, Gary?” And he replies: “Your computers … they … won’t … let … me … Instant Message! How do you people talk to each other?!”

That’s your new dean. If he’s not connected to the ever-flowing stream of news and information, he’s not happy.

Fortunately, we got it all straightened out, and during the next few years Gary helped us invest about $100 million in media innovation. Our foundation became known across the country for his project, the Knight News Challenge.

The Knight Foundation is based on the personal fortunes of Jack and Jim Knight, who built Knight newspapers, once the largest newspaper group in America, probably better known to you as Knight-Ridder.

The Knight brothers cared about informed and engaged communities, and that’s what we care about.

Media innovation helps us do everything from increasing broadband access in the communities we serve to creating new tools for hundreds of news organizations.

Today, in part because of the work we have been doing, we can talk about the existence of something called the “media innovation community.”

We can see communicators and technologists working together on the future of news and information. That’s progress from the days when journalists had nothing to say about their technological future.

Once, I was a journalism student sitting out there in an audience not unlike this one. And I must admit also sitting out there as a parent.

As a student, I was excited (and only a little bored by the speaker). But when I sat there as a parent, I was terrified.

Today’s world of media is entirely different. Today, I can see, the students are much more excited and the parents are much more terrified!

All you need to do is plug into the stream and you see journalism and mass communication developments coming faster and more forcefully than ever.

This is the dawn of a new age in communication, the digital age, and it is even richer with invention than the dawn of the industrial age.

New tools are being invented at a mind-boggling pace. Instead of the telegraph, the telephone and the light bulb, we’re talking about microchips, laptops, smart phones, tablets. We’re talking about companies like Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter: from digital zero to number one in the market, nearly overnight.

As the legendary journalist Hodding Carter III once said, “This is the most exciting time ever to be a journalist – if you are not in search of the past.” The same I would say applies to being any kind of communicator – advertising, public relations, you name it.

That’s what’s exciting. The students of today actually are going to create the journalism and mass communication of tomorrow. You aren’t stuck in formats created a century ago. You get to build the new companies and the new products and the new standards of the digital age.

New standards? That’s right. New tools create opportunities to make new rules. This is why it’s a great time to be in journalism education, if you can keep up.

Let me say it again.

New tools create new rules.

How cool is that? You get to revisit everything that matters about communication, about journalism, about the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth, and figure out what that will mean in 2015, when most of the data traffic in the U.S. will be through mobile devices. You can figure out what it means in the world described by Pew’s Internet and American Life Project, where news and information are becoming more personal, portable and participatory.

You can figure out how one communicator with good ideas and the right tools can act like a hundred old-time communicators. You can understand how news and information now flows in an interconnected ecosystem and not in the old one-way industrial-age assembly-line system.

This kind of adventure, this excitement, this digital gold rush, attracts smart people who like risks.

You do need to learn certain things.

Clear expression, most of all. And how to dig for the facts. But also how to speak technology: It’s a language. And the ability to quickly pick up any subject — business skills if you can. Being able to work collaboratively in teams. Being comfortable in work cultures that continuously change. Being able to develop content that not only informs communities but engages them.

So learn that. Do that. Then go get a great job. And if you don’t like the jobs they have, you can try to go out and make up one of your own.

This, of course, is what terrifies us parents.

What do you mean that my child must learn to create the businesses of tomorrow? What about the bills of today?

When parents of journalism students look at the news, no doubt they focus on the headlines about the woes facing traditional media. In the last several years alone, 15,000 traditional journalism jobs have been eliminated in America The lion’s share, some 13,500, have been cut from in daily newspapers.

Some say this is just the recession. I disagree. The big news out of this week’s meeting of the newspaper group, the American Society of News Editors, was that the recession is over and papers have added back a grand total of 100 newsroom jobs. Only one hundred.

This is a new digital age, profoundly different from what has come before.

People today have the ability to communicate individually and globally, to create their own news and information, to seek it out, to pass it along, act on it instantly.

We have never had a world with five billion cell phones before. We don’t know what that means.

It is difficult for institutions to get their institutional heads around how much change is coming. But the evidence is too great to ignore. As my boss, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen, puts it: “Change is the new normal.”

There’s one chart in particular that sticks in my mind. It shows the household penetration of the daily newspapers in the United States. Just after WWII, there were more than 1.2 newspapers in the United States for every household. Morning papers, afternoon papers, families took more than one. Today it’s .4. Today a household subscribes, on average, to less than half a paper. Sometimes those papers are so thin it feels like you are getting half a paper.

The chart shows the decline in households with daily papers in America has gone down in a nearly perfectly straight line, with the same slope, for 70 years.

Does that mean no one wants the news and ads that newspapers bring? No. What is dying is a particular way of getting that news to you. And you have to ask yourself whether or not it really makes sense to keep doing it that way.

Look at how it works: You have to kill a tree, then make paper, then get a huge press and all that ink and print the paper full of news – even though news happens all the time you only can do this once a day — then you throw it into big trucks, drive it to a faraway place, throw it in bundles onto the curb, then load papers into cars – used to be kids on bikes, now it’s cars — then fling the papers out the car windows onto doorsteps, sometimes with little plastic bags on them when it’s raining. Sometimes.

It’s no wonder people just Google the news. I used to edit newspapers. And I love newspapers. But they are not the fastest, easiest and most reliable way of getting news today.

When I asked the scholar Phil Meyer, the father of something called Precision Journalism, to take that household penetration chart and extend it all the way down to zero, he used his statistical magic, and he did it.

Here’s what Phil says:

If nothing happens to change it, the last reader will read the last printed, home-delivered, paid subscription daily newspaper in America in April 2040.

He didn’t have an exact day.

Of course, says Phil, and many other people, including many of you here, something will happen. Somehow the line will level off. It can never go to zero.

But I ask you, seriously, why would that be? You have a line that’s been going in the same direction for 70 years. What is going to happen that’s suddenly going to change direction? It would be nice if we, the baby boom generation, didn’t die. Then we could just keep taking those newspapers forever. It’s just not likely, though I wish it were true.

Seventy years of straight-line history says something is going to happen to that American tradition we’ve have for so long – the home-delivered, paid subscription, printed daily newspaper — that it will be gone within the lifetimes of the students in this room.

Is this a horrifying prospect? No. We’ll just get the news on tablets and save trees.

This change in delivery mechanisms is making more jobs for communicators, not fewer.

Even though there are fewer writers, photographers, editors and designers in traditional news media, there are many more of those in media as a whole.

Looking forward, job opportunities are actually good. How many 60 year olds in this room can say they truly understand social media? Someone is going to do those jobs. All you need to do is open your mind to a bigger definition of news and information, of journalism and mass communication.

You might end up doing the website of a nonprofit, and doing things just as journalistically as you might have done it at a daily newspaper. Or at any number of new companies, or at a company of your own.

The sector of web production will grow and grow and grow.

In just in the past five years, the percentage of graduates of journalism and mass communication programs getting jobs writing for or editing on or designing or otherwise working on the World Wide Web has gone from roughly 20 percent of graduates to roughly 60 percent.

Parents, I think you are lucky. A journalism and mass communication degree is one of the best ways anyone can start an education. These are the great liberal arts degrees of the 21st century.

Every workplace in America needs clear digital communicators.

This, I think, is why enrollment in journalism and mass communication programs is booming even as traditional journalism jobs are shrinking.

To lead in any field — the law, business, nonprofit, the government world – you need to be able to communicate.

Now some are saying, “Hey, wait a minute. What’s with all this happy news? Great students, fantastic university, wonderful dean … hmmm … what are you not telling us?” Well, good for you, critical thinkers. So let’s talk about something in this new age of communication that I worry about, something I think we can do something about.

It’s the downside, the dark side, the soft underbelly of the digital age. When we say that news is more “portable, personal and participatory,” the personal part means you can use the new digital devices to surround yourself with the news and information that you want — and only that.

More easily than ever before, you can surround yourself in a digital cocoon.

Only talk to the friends you want to talk to. Only see the stuff you already agree with, care about what you already care about.

You can fix your digital settings to hold at bay the world’s ability to intrude, limit serendipity, block the shocks and hard truths and other stuff you don’t agree with from making its way into your orbit.

And every day we design more products that let you do this better than you could yesterday.

In this era of information overload, 70 percent of the country is overwhelmed by all the information and is happy to use these devices to manage it.

It’s a normal human reaction to want to protect yourself from this swirling invisible neural net of electrons flying around the world with the sum total of human knowledge, doubling faster and faster.

So we – and I mean the human race — like to react by doing what is comfortable, seeking safety, security.

We find ourselves, for example, eating “comfort food.” I know about that. Cashews and a frappuccino. Ice cream. Chocolate. It’s tasty. It makes you feel good, but is not that good for you. We know this kind of food is not all that nutritious. But we eat it anyway. Comfort food. Not healthy. Doesn’t matter.

News and information are like food. Think of news as food for your mind.

A lot of the things going on in the news business are also going on in the food business. Just a few companies producing a huge amount of news, just like food. The computer keeps your news fresh just like the refrigerator keeps your food fresh. Regular folks like to grow food in their backyards, and citizens also enjoy writing their own news. We have folks who want more local news just like the folks who want more local farms: the folks who like that honest, home-grown organic sustainable news just like the folks who want that home-grown, organic sustainable food.

So just like comfort food, there’s something that I like to call comfort news. This is the news and information that makes you feel good but may not be good for you.

A lot of political news these days is comfort news. You know what I’m talking about. You see somebody on cable TV or on the internet. And you say, “Yeah… I agree with that guy! He’s right!” And OK, he has an opinion, you’ve got an opinion, and they are the same. But is that really news and information, and is that really good for you?

How much protein, how many facts, are really in all of that commentary? If one station tilts to the right and another tilts to the left, are they really giving you any nutrition? Or just making you feel good about what you already think? They even have different facts. How can that be?

Comfort news is why so many people think the health care bill already has been repealed and Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

There are lots of kinds of comfort news, but the celebrity and entertainment kind doesn’t really bother me so much, though I must say, if that’s the only news you put in your head, all that brain candy will eventually take its toll.

There are no studies in what I am calling comfort news — it’s not even recognized yet as an actual category — but if there were, I predict they would show comfort news is increasing in the United States.

In fact, we in the communications business are designing more and more products that make it easier and easier for you to surround yourself with a world that agrees with you.

It is a juggernaut, but we can still do things to improve the situation. ‚Ä®For one thing, we can ask for honest labeling. If you are a news outlet, and you are tilting your news to conservatives, why don’t you just say so? If you put out news for liberals, why don’t you just say so?

What’s the harm in telling the truth in what’s in the news, the same way food labels tell us what’s really in there?

Knowing what’s really in the news you are consuming is called news literacy. It’s a combination of digital, media and civic literacy – and really important in the digital age, when everyone can produce news.

We need more of these 21st century literacies. The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities says these new literacies need to be taught in every level of education, but they aren’t.

Why is this important? Because society needs healthy flows of news and information just like the life on Earth needs sunlight. It helps open societies grow. We need facts, not just comfortable opinions, to make good things happen in the world.

What does that have to do with you, here in this room? In a few minutes, many of you will be picking up awards for your good work. I would like to suggest that when you pick up that award you also pick up a responsibility: a responsibility to use your media literacy to teach others. You’ve gone to a great college of journalism and mass communications. You can pass along what you’ve learned about how to think critically about media, about the difference between facts and opinion.

News literacy is as important to the collective mental health of a society as nutritional literacy is to our nation’s physical well-being. Because of where you are going to school, you are becoming digitally and media literate. Volunteer at the local library or community center. Teach others what you are learning.

If you do, you will be in good company. Throughout the history of news there have always been those more interested in news for private gain and others interested in news for the public good. Every communicator has to decide if it’s one or the other or both. You must decide where you stand on that issue.

Jack Knight knew where he stood. More than 40 years ago, he said great newspapers “seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.”

If that sounds awfully important, it’s because it is. Scary.

The fear factor reminds me of a poster I once saw about skydiving. “If at first you don’t succeed,” the poster said, “skydiving is not for you.”

But the biggest mistake any of us can make today is to be afraid of mistakes.

Media innovation requires mistakes. It is not skydiving. I remember another quote on a wall, this one at the Newseum, in a display of the sometimes hilarious mistakes newspapers have made over the years.

It said: “To err is human, to correct divine.”

So remember that, and what I am saying here tonight really will come true.

You will invent the news and information systems of tomorrow, and that will make this world a much better place.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.