Does a 21st century journalist really have a right to complain?

Eric Newton, director of Knight’s Journalism Initiatives, made the following remarks at the Sixth John S. Knight Fellowships Reunion and Conference at Stanford University on July 9, 2005. He spoke to a crowd of about 100 journalists, mostly alumni of the fellowship program.

Newton’s remarks were warmly received, and characterized as ‘optimistic and inspiring’ by a group of folks who of late have had to endure endless discussion about scandals and debate about just how pessimistic they should be about the future of journalism. When Newton talked about the hope of journalism residing with individual journalists of all sorts, a murmur went through the crowd. When he posed the question “Does a 21st century journalist really have a right to complain?,” it was clear that for perhaps the first time in a long time, many in the audience realized what the answer was: No.

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There sure is a lot of brainpower in this room. And a lot of very good friends. I THINK those are the same people…It’s hard to imagine a problem that could not be solved if all the molecules in this room were to somehow line up behind the same idea.

I’m here today because two brothers decided to put their fortune back into the communities where they made it and into the journalism that helped them make it.

We at Knight Foundation work to honor Jack and Jim Knight, two practical men, and Lee Hills, the practical guy who sold them on the idea of a foundation. We seek to honor them by trying to help improve journalism in direct and practical ways.

We encourage press freedom and freedom of information here and abroad, and journalism education and training for all, in all media.

The point is to preserve and, if we can, help increase the stream of news in the public interest, the news citizens need to run their nations and their lives.

Knight Foundation’s endowment is nearing $2 billion. We invest $90 million each year, the vast majority of it directly back into the 26 communities where the brothers owned newspapers, to solve problems identified by those communities.

From $20 to $25 million of our investment each year goes into journalism programs. We currently work with 170 active journalism grantees doing business all over the world.

That said, however, it is safe, very safe indeed, to say that our best investment is represented not in a faraway shore or some the hallways of power – but right here, right here in Palo Alto, California.

Stanford University has made the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Program a model of what a great fellowship program should be.

We have Jim Risser, and Jim Bettinger and Dawn Garcia to thank for that. So let’s thank ‘em. While we’re in the mood, we have the Knight brothers to thank, and so let’s thank ‘em. And most of all, you have yourselves to thank, alumni, the proof of the pudding. So please, give yourselves a hand.

In the current issue of the American Journalism Review, the great newspaper editor Gene Patterson talks about Jack Knight’s journalism, the quality, fierce independence, the editorial autonomy, how the guy wrote a Sunday column for 39 years running.

The context of all this praise was real but far less than ideal. Gene was reviewing Buzz Merritt’s book, Knightfall. As you know, Buzz has joined those arguing that market-based decisions are hurting the cause of socially responsible journalism.

Thankfully, Gene decided not to get into the 2,000-year-old argument of whether or not the capitalistic sky is falling. Instead, he made a great point. The hope, he said, is not whether one company or another will do the right thing or the wrong thing.

“Hope really resides,” he wrote, “in newspapermen and women who have always understood they work for a goal higher than the counting house.”

Hope really resides – let’s edit this a bit – hope really resides in journalists who have always understood they work for a goal higher than the counting house.

So let’s talk about hope.

Let’s talk about those of you who are doing it – getting important stories out into the world – whatever way you can: front page, home page, text messaging, podcasting, telephone cameras, notebook computers, Blackberries, paid newspapers, free newspapers, magazines, satellite radio, public radio, all manner of television, video clips and email.

To quote one final time my outgoing president, Hodding Carter III: “This is an explosively creative time to be in journalism – if you are not in search of the past.”

I ask you: Does a 21st century journalist really have a right to complain? For the first time in more than 500 years, we don’t have to kiss up to someone who owns a printing press.

Think about it.

When you look ahead, to what you can do, what you will do, and then when you really do it, that’s the payback that honors practical people like Jack and Jim Knight and Lee Hills, the people who could see the potential, see the future, in the old big city newspapers they bought and turned into gold.

When you say ‘no’ to theorists who claim good journalism is impossible or bosses who say they can’t afford it or activists who say it doesn’t exist, that’s when you honor Jack Knight.

And because only you can do that, that’s why you are where hope really resides.

Thanks for having me.

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.