Eric Newton: ‘The Future of News’

Eric Newton, Knight Foundation’s Journalism Program vice president, received the 2008 Dewitt Carter Reddick Award from the University of Texas at Austin for “outstanding professional achievement in the field of communication.” This is the text of “The Future of News” — remarks presented April 12 by Newton at the College of Communication Honors Convocation.

Apr. 13, 2008

Thank you. I’m honored to receive this year’s Reddick Award. My father has family in Texas. He’s a Navy man, a retired Lt. Commander. Not much impressed by journalism awards like Pulitzers or Peabodys. But when I told him about this he said, “Hey, Texas … that’s great! Hey, send some pictures!” So, here’s a photo opportunity. Ready? Hook ‘em Horns!

I’m here because of people I know and people I’ve never met. I know Dean Rod Hart, who is leading this College of Communication to excellence. Yours is one of only 12 universities in the Carnegie Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education. And I know Rosental Alves, the extraordinary Knight Chair in International Journalism. And of course Alberto Ibargüen, our dynamic Knight Foundation president. Alberto has transformed the foundation’s work and its ambitions. Today, we care about nothing less than helping lead journalism to its best 21st century future.

The people I have never met include Dewitt Carter Reddick, your legendary dean. As a student, when he ran for editor of Longhorn Magazine, he promised to do “god-fearing, straight-shooting, hard-riding” stories. He was a real reporter as well as a scholar. Maybe that’s why students like Walter Cronkite loved him so much. In 1959, Dr. Reddick said this: “I don’t think any other profession offers such a challenge for real service to our country and our generation as the field of communication of ideas and information.”

I am here because of two brothers, Jack and Jim Knight, and their mother, Clara. Their personal fortunes created what is now a $2.5 billion endowment at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Brothers were 20th century news visionaries. They parlayed their father’s Akron Beacon-Journal into one of the nation’s largest newspaper companies, Knight-Ridder. Today their foundation continues their fight for quality journalism.

Here’s how Jack defined his newspaper philosophy: “We 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.”

There’s one more person I never met whose story is important today. He’s the great Irish monk, Columcille. He became a saint for spreading Christianity to Scotland. Started monasteries. Copied books. Brought the great works of Western Civilization back to the continent, where the originals had been destroyed. And that, explains author Thomas Cahill, is “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

Around the year 574, Columcille returned to Ireland. Before a national convention was a proposal to suppress the Order of Bards. Bards were troublesome singers and poets, satirical, nasty. Scribes were the monks, the copiers of books, the elite. The scribes did not want the bards around.

But it turns out Columcille was not just a scribe but a poet. He believed poetry essential to Irish life. Do not banish the bards,” he said, “only command that they widen their circle and teach others what they know.” As Cahill tells it, the national assembly agreed – and then 1,200 bards barged in to sing songs of praise to a red-faced future saint.

Do not banish the bards. Make them widen their circle and teach others.

Good advice for the Digital Era of News.

As the nation’s leading journalism grant-maker, Knight has invested $400 million in the field this past 50 years. We define journalism excellence as the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth. We believe all citizens should be able to find the news they need to run their governments and their lives.

We think journalism education is stronger because our grants endowed a network of chairs, centers and fellowships at dozens of top universities. Our amazing grantees have trained more than 100,000 journalists worldwide. (As you’ve learned, there is simply no substitute for actually knowing something about the stories you are telling.) Our grantees have brought justice to the murders of journalists; raised awareness about Freedom of Information; started 1,000 new high school media outlets; helped millions get more honest web news and millions more better understand the world.

All of this is good. But not good enough.

Today, we’re on a quest. We want to answer a seemingly simple question put to us by our president. Here it is: “What in the 21st Century will inform and inspire communities the way Jack and Jim’s newspapers did in the 20th century?”

Today, we invite you, the news producers and consumers of tomorrow, to join us in this quest.

Here’s how we’re pursuing it:

  • We’re looking for new ideas with the Knight News Challenge, a $25 million contest rewarding digital innovation in community news.
  • We’re searching digital public squares that include everyone through a $25 million project with One Community.
  • We’re trying to find ways for community foundations to support the growing nonprofit projects producing news.
  • We’re exploring with the Aspen Institute new public policies to better unlock news and information in communities.
  • We’re the top outside funder of the new Newseum in Washington D.C. We hope the Knight Conference Center there will be the place where the world comes to learn that it will not solve its most difficult problems until news and information flows freely across all borders.

The future of news is everyone’s future. My wife, Mary Ann Hogan, wrote the original Newseum text. Here’s how she put it: “The story of news is the story of our need to know and our need to tell, of many voices struggling to be heard. It is more than events and headlines – more even than the evolution of journalism. It is the story of the modern world.”

From spoken news 20,000 years ago came agriculture; from written news, 5,000 years ago, great civilizations; from printed news, 500 years ago, real democracy; and from electronic news, 164 years ago, a connected world.

Electronic news seemed the ultimate. Samuel Morse said it all when telegraphed those first words: “What hath God Wrought.”

But today we’re in a new age that dwarfs all that came before: The Digital Era of News.

In a historical heartbeat, we have surrounded the earth with a computer cloud of electrons buzzing with news and information and a lot of other stuff. The cloud is expanding at an astonishing rate. In 2006 alone, Sir Tim Berners Lee estimates, we added to the World Wide Web more than three million times the information in all the books ever written.

The scribe Marshall McLuhan announced this new era in 1967, writing that our “new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.”

The bard Paul Simon announced it in 1987, singing:

“These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo,
The way we look to us all…”

New devices define the era. Nokias. Blackberrys. Think pads. They help us connect to the cloud. And to each other.

The new era has turned journalism upside down and inside out. Every element – who a journalist is, what a story is, which medium works best, even how to describe the people formerly known as the audience – every element is changing.

A journalist can be anyone. A story can be data, events, issues, ideas – or all of them. A medium can be words, sound, pictures — or all of them. An audience can become a journalist.

This is an era of new metaphors. We used to say journalists shine the light and people find their way. Lanterns, flashlights, spotlights were our stock in trade. Now, the digital cloud is already lit up. For many, there’s too much light. Too much glare. Things hide in plain sight. When that happens, the last thing we need is a flashlight. To help us see, to help us find our way, what we need these days is a good pair of sunglasses.

Sunglasses are filters. In the Digital Era of News, we need ever smarter, better filters. If our filters were working right, we would see that there is more good journalism in the world today than ever. It’s out there, sent by both scribe and bard. We just don’t know it’s there.

We need filters to find it, and to show us why the good stuff is more worthy of our trust. We need to fix our filters the way young people, the digital natives, do, so we don’t have to look for news — so the news will find us.

Technology alone will not save us. Governments can use these same filters to censor news. Even worse, we can misuse them to wrap ourselves in digital cocoons. We can filter out anything that doesn’t fit our preconceived views. Close our minds rather than open them.

The Digital Era is a paradox. In the infinity of cyberspace, there should be room for everyone. But everyone is not there. The digital divide is real. The half of the population of America’s cities that has broadband is the richer half, not the other half.

Yet, as the great journalist Bob Maynard once said: “This country cannot be the country we want it to be if its story is told by only one group of people. Our goal is to give all Americans front-door access to the truth.”

The Digital Era of News is the age of the inventor. Today a couple of guys in a garage can create a billion dollar company. So my best advice here for students today is this: If you think you’ve learned all there is to learn here, learn more. Never stop. The future of news belongs not to the strong or to the big, but to the nimble. Be nimble.

Does journalism still matter in the Digital Era of News? Of course it does. True, we are creating a hundred new ways to find out that the bridge just fell down. Yet we all still realize that we aren’t really improving the situation until we are able to tell you how to fix the bridge before it falls down. So we know we still need good journalism.

Computers don’t just deliver news. They help us create it. One modern computer-assisted reporter today has the investigative muscle of 100 shoe-leather reporters.

Computers connect us. It’s remarkable what one guy and a computer can do. Consider the story of Will Anderson, 21, a student at the University of Florida. Will saw a student newspaper story about a state bill to change Florida’s popular Bright Futures scholarships. He started a Facebook group against it. Within 11 days, there were 20,000 members. They wrote letters. They called. Florida state Sen. Jeremy Ring dropped the bill. “You can’t ignore 20,000 people,” he said.

Will is definitely not a scribe. He is not a news professional. He did not write a letter to the editor of the newspaper. The newspaper did not do stories, causing broadcasters to do stories, causing the senator to withdraw the bill. Traditional media did not kill this bill. The kids on Facebook did.

Facebook didn’t exist just a few years ago. But it’s here now, and its membership is 70 million bards.

In the Sci-Fi future of news, you can get it in your sleep. You can plug your brain into a computer. You can get news through sunglasses, goggles, that let you layer a world of information over the real world. You’ll be able to Google in your goggles.

In this newsy future, we won’t care if the last newspaper is ever printed. We won’t worry about the future of the newspaper. We’ll worry about is the future of the tree.

But to get to the point where news saves the world, helps us end poverty and global warming and war and disease, universities will need to lead the way.

Universities could put their research online, free for all to read. They could teach everyone News Literacy. They could help fulfill the information needs of their communities.

It’s really not too much to ask. Universities have everything a communications leader needs. They are fact-oriented. They have the future users. They have the inventors. They can be hot beds of innovation.

Even for those of you who are graduating, it’s not too late. Shake hands with a business major. Hug an engineer. Pal up to the Geek Squad.

Scribes and bards, working together, learning from one another, can create a future we can all live with.

Thank you.