Northwestern Magazine
Fall 2006 Home Alumni News Class Notes Student Life Mailbox Purple Prose Back Issues
Submit a Class Note
Submit a Purple Prose
E-mail the Editor
Read Our Back Issues
Update Your Address
Advertise with Us
Contact Us

The Future of News

The digital age has empowered media consumers, revolutionized the news industry and created new demands on the next generation of journalists.


by Josh Kwan (KSM06)

Whenever Kevin Sites arrives at the scene of an armed conflict, whether in Afghanistan or Nepal or Uganda, he carries with him the tools of his trade: two video cameras, a laptop computer, digital camera, satellite modem and satellite phone. Sites (GJ89) is the do-it-all reporter for Yahoo! News: writer, video journalist, photographer and sound technician. His assignment is to spend a year reporting from every hot spot of violence in the world.

On the web site dedicated to Sites’ dispatches, Yahoo! News publishes a kaleidoscope of written articles, video clips and photo essays about the people he meets in violent locales. (See “Multimedia Journalist Covers Hot Sites.”) This is quite a bit more than what can be accomplished with the old notebook and pen, and it speaks volumes about the broad changes reshaping the world of journalism.

The shaggy-haired, ruggedly handsome Sites serves as a poster boy for the kind of journalist that the Medill School hopes to produce en masse. He is a leading example of the new breed, one comfortable with an expanding range of technology and the market demands of today’s media consumers.

“The revolution in media requires a revolution in how we educate our graduates in the 21st century,” says John Lavine, who took over as dean of Medill in January.

Lavine says powerful forces are at work in the news industry. Consumers continue to have a greater variety of choices with which to spend their time in media. New technologies are constantly providing more convenient ways of accessing information, from portable video game consoles to cell phones that tap into the Internet to electronic “paper” that reads almost as well as a printed book. And consumers are becoming media producers themselves, with blogs, podcasts and social networking web sites for sharing photos and videos.

Lavine is chief architect of Medill’s response to these new realities, a strategic plan for the school called “Medill 2020” (see “A New Vision — Medill 2020”). The plan emphasizes expectations for rigorous reporting and superior writing skills as well as incorporating the school’s strengths in data-driven, customer-centric marketing communication and research. The strategic plan calls first for faculty training in multimedia storytelling and understanding audiences and then student instruction in these topics.

“Our job,” Lavine says, “is to create journalists who can win and hold the attention of media consumers faced with limited time and abundant media choices.”

Lavine’s challenge at Medill is to figure out how to instill this ethos — first understanding the audience, then delivering relevant and engaging stories and messages — into the hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students who pass through the journalism school. Certainly, it will require a seismic cultural change — for faculty as well as students.

When newspapers, radio and television were the only news outlets in town, their editors controlled the one-way flow of information. Journalists developed “a sense that we dictate what people should know; we’re the high priests of information,” says Betsy Brenner (J76, KSM78), publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (see “Room at the Top,” spring 2003). Given the abundance of competition, the mainstream media can no longer believe they belong to an exclusive priesthood.

A news junkie today has a surfeit of choices. In fact, for a news consumer this may be a golden age of information. Never have there been more voices and international perspectives in the public sphere, or more media delivering news in more multimedia formats. “We’re saturated with media,” says Mike Smith, executive director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center.

As media alternatives have grown, traditional media has suffered. The percentage of Americans who say they read a newspaper has been falling since the late 1940s, and that trend is accelerating. The number of newspapers in the country has been dropping 1 percent a year for the past two decades. Since the start of CNN in 1980, viewership of the nightly news on the major networks has tumbled 48 percent.

So how do we interpret the declining interest in traditional news outlets? “They’re telling us: ‘You bore us. You tell us stuff, but not the stuff I need to know,’” says Jeff Jarvis (J75), founder of Entertainment Weekly and now the director of the graduate interactive journalism program at the City University of New York. “We’re not doing the job we need to do for the public.”

In order to reconnect with their audience, Lavine says, journalists must tell stories that are relevant to people’s lives and truly distinct from the media flotsam that washes past. Part of the formula requires taking elements of marketing and applying those elements to journalism — a concept that has sent some traditionalists into a tizzy. Lavine is adamant that this does not entail pandering to the audience. “You have to have great journalism or else they won’t come,” Lavine explains. “The marketer says, ‘I can add to that in meaningful ways.’” He draws a parallel to what Starbucks does with coffee. The ubiquitous chain has created an ambiance with its décor, music and baristas to enhance the experience of drinking its coffee. The same must be done with journalism, Lavine says, but it starts with providing excellent coffee.

Smith, who has done extensive research on youth and media, says much of the proliferation in media is being driven by the youth who constitute Generation C, for content. This is a generation, mostly between the ages of 8 and 18, accustomed to creating its own content — unlike previous generations who relied on traditional sources for news and entertainment, such as newspapers, television, and movie and recording studios. Today’s media-savvy generation shoots and edits its own videos and shares them online at YouTube and Current TV; discusses music and communicates on MySpace, an online networking community; and creates online publications, in the form of blogs, that focus on its lives and ideas.

News media are still trying to imagine how to connect with this growing body of content produced by Generation C, by “citizen journalists” and by readers who wish to comment on the news. For as long as newspapers have held sway over the printed word and television stations have commanded the airwaves, editors in newsrooms have set the agenda for what was considered important news, says Smith.

With the Internet as their publishing platform, people from all walks of life can now hold the megaphone and stand on the soapbox once monopolized by the traditional news media. “It allows any voice to make itself heard,” says associate professor Rich Gordon, director of Medill’s new media program. Add to this mix the increasingly comprehensive online search engines, and the result is a world of information that has both exploded in size and become exponentially easier to navigate.

When creating content surged in popularity, a babel of new voices burst forth, from the writers on the political blogs Daily Kos and Huffington Post to the techie sites Digg and Slashdot. Yet the benefits of new voices in a new technology carry some potential costs, some experts say.

Engulfed in the urgency of publishing instant analysis on the Internet, writers “run the risk of being less contemplative and less informed,” says Bruce Dold (J77, GJ78), the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune and chair of Northwestern magazine’s editorial advisory board. Though encouraged by the volume of comments coming to the paper’s web site, Dold says he worries whether people online will read thoughtful commentary from multiple sides of an issue. “I fear you lose contact with whom you don’t agree,” Dold says, highlighting the role that a newspaper’s Op-Ed page plays in presenting opposing ideas.

News media were generally slower to the blogging scene because of their desire to retain control over content, Smith says. The issue now for the traditional news media: “How do you control the message?” asks Smith. “And you soon discover that you can’t control the message” in consumer-generated content.

When Mary Lou Song (J91) arrived at eBay as the third employee, she was asked to oversee the company’s relationship with the budding community of eBay buyers and sellers. She quickly learned that controlling the conversation wasn’t the point, she says. People have an innate desire to form communities and actively shape them, says the former newspaper reporter. So eBay made it a company habit to consult its users on everything from features for its web site to policies that govern transactions, she says.

News media companies “absolutely have to figure out how they can create and nurture a community for their users,” Song says. “The expectations of average Internet users and newspaper readers are that they all want to be an active part of a community, and whether that community is built around a product or news or an issue, it doesn’t matter.”

One of the biggest challenges for traditional news media is the bull rush of consumers and advertisers to the Internet. As consumers spend more time with online content, at the expense of print and broadcast, advertisers are following them onto the web, says Bob Bailey (G68, 72, KSM79), executive vice president of marketing research at the advertising agency Energy BBDO. “In my 33 years in advertising,” says Bailey, “I have never seen advertisers as frustrated as they are now with conventional media and as interested in experimenting.”

A visitor to a newspaper’s web site typically generates just a small fraction of the revenue that a print subscriber brings to the company, says Scott Smith (KSM76), president of Tribune Publishing, the $4 billion newspaper arm of Tribune Co. Newspapers risk cannibalizing their profitable print revenues by channeling readers to their web sites, but they have little choice. Without a robust online presence, they may be left behind altogether.

It is unfair to say that newspapers failed to recognize the potential of the Internet. As far back as 1993 — when the Yahoo! and Google founders were still nerdy students, not yet nerdy billionaires — newspapers were offering their content on the Internet, with the San Jose Mercury News one of the first to distribute text stories to AOL subscribers. Newspapers were among the first news media to dip their toes into the web, helped by the fact that slow Internet connection speeds made audio and video simply unbearable for most surfers, says Gordon, who launched the Miami Herald’s online efforts in 1995.

What blindsided the industry were the transcendent businesses that usurped the newspaper’s long-held role as mediator of the local marketplace. EBay revolutionized the garage sale; Craigslist made classified advertising and real estate listings free; and Monster and HotJobs competed fiercely for job openings that once were only listed in a newspaper’s employment section. Then there are Yahoo! and Google, each with news sites that attract tens of millions of users each month.

The response from traditional news media must be innovation, says Scott Smith of the Tribune Co., which operates 11 daily newspapers and 26 television stations. “I would say in the news business, as in other businesses, customer-focused innovation is essential,” he says. “In that context, you’ll see a greater range of choices offered by one news organization.” He points to the recent additions to the Chicago Tribune’s universe: RedEye, a free tabloid aimed at the city’s young commuters; Hoy, the Spanish-language publication; Chicago magazine, a glossy monthly about life in the city that the company purchased in 2002. New online ventures are in the works, including one specializing in the local shopping experience. Giving consumers a variety of options lets them pick what Tribune content they like and gives advertisers different ways to reach consumers, Smith says.

At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Brenner is turning to the core strengths of a local newspaper, what she says is its unsurpassed understanding of the community and its deep relationship with advertisers. Brenner, who arrived in Milwaukee at the end of 2004, has pushed her staff to find new ways to repackage the paper’s rich knowledge of Milwaukee. A new shopping web site is on the way, to go with a youth-oriented site stocked with lifestyle and entertainment coverage as well as a directory of more than 1,000 Milwaukee bloggers. “We have to use our understanding of the local market, what we do better than anyone else, and leverage that using technology and relationships we have built with advertisers,” Brenner says.

A bright spot for traditional media like newspapers is the increasingly popular notion of consumer engagement. “Engagement is the idea that if people are deeply involved in the media vehicle, they will also be more involved in the advertising that appears in that vehicle,” says Bailey, the advertising executive. That plays well for newspapers, according to Scott Smith.

“A fundamental strength of newspapers is that our consumers are both actively engaged in the news content and very actively engaged in the advertising content,” Smith says. “Consumers really want advertising in their newspaper,” perhaps in contrast to the way people with TiVo generally skip commercials.

Television newscasts are under tremendous pressure, too. As their audience ages, news managers are left trying to attract a younger mix of viewers. The networks are also losing ground to cable channels, both the 24-hour news stations and the niche single-topic channels like the Food Network, says Bailey.

The Internet poses a slightly different challenge for television news, says David Louie (J72), the Emmy Award–winning business and technology reporter for ABC’s San Francisco Bay Area affiliate. The web has given other news media, namely newspapers, a means to broadcast their own video without having to pay licenses or strike deals with cable companies. Perhaps more important, the web forever alters the linear time paradigm, in which broadcast news shows are constricted to 30-minute or 60-minute increments at specific hours of the day. And viewers aren’t restricted to watching shows in chronological order, Louie says. If they want to skip the weather report for the sports segment, well, there’s nothing stopping them online.

Louie says that television is in the midst of figuring out how to integrate its news reports with the web. More original stories and unedited interviews are being broadcast online, giving reporters a chance to flesh out stories compressed by time. “Every reporter feels cheated,” Louie says. “The Internet gives us the opportunity to expand on a story where we don’t feel compromised.”

When Louie arrived in Hong Kong in December 2005 to cover the World Trade Organization conference and the accompanying protests, he produced video blogs that included segments in which he walked alongside the protesters. The video blogs gave viewers on the station’s web site an inside look at the context and landscape of the scene, a perspective that couldn’t fit into the standard television broadcast. “Anytime we can innovate, use technology to tell stories in a more effective way or reach an audience we wouldn’t otherwise reach, that’s all healthy,” says Louie.

It seems as if every medium is trying to adopt the best elements of every other type of media. Newspapers are experimenting with online video and podcasting, television stations are pushing viewers to their web sites, and radio stations are writing text around their broadcasts on the web.

One place where this is all happening is, a collaboration of Microsoft and NBC Universal that has become one of the most popular online news destinations. Jennifer Sizemore (GJ91), the managing editor, attributes’s success to a relentless desire to find the best way to tell a story, whether through a video segment of a Tim Russert Meet the Press interview or a page dedicated to Hurricane Katrina with coverage from Newsweek magazine, NBC videos, wire service stories, photos and graphics, plus original material from reporters. “People are smart enough to navigate information in ways that make sense to them,” she says. “Give them this incredibly immersive experience, and they’ll spend more time than you ever imagined, at their own pace and at their own direction.”

What are the implications of this sea change in the news media? The traditional sources of news face a period of upheaval as their businesses come under attack from new competitors, from Yahoo! for news and information to new bloggers for commentary to eBay and Craigslist for classified advertising. But for the American consumer, many experts say, the result is undeniably positive.

“We live in a world of ideas, and it’s healthy to have additional voices and additional eyes,” says Louie. A seminal moment in citizen journalism occurred in the minutes after the July 7, 2005, attack on the London subway system, when bystanders snapped video and still photos with their cell phones and handheld computers. Those eyewitness images, forwarded all over the world, told a story that no professional journalist could. Indeed, they were complementary to the analysis and deeper reporting that the professionals added later (see “Citizen Journalist,” spring 2006).

On the horizon, some believe, is a nascent breed of news company that will rise to challenge the traditional stalwarts. “The best of these upstart new media companies will quickly make their mark by recruiting young, creative, fearless journalists and innovators but also by recruiting some of the best of the increasingly disgruntled and frustrated journalistic talent on ever-shrinking staffs at major newspapers and media companies,” says George de Lama (J79), deputy managing editor for news at the Chicago Tribune. When the upstarts gain enough attention to threaten the slower-moving giants, the traditional news outlets will purchase them, de Lama says. Ultimately, he says, there may be fewer traditional newspaper jobs, but the overall number of jobs in journalism will grow.

At the time of the American Revolution, the “news media” consisted of small pamphlets published by individuals who tried to sway their neighbors about the hottest topics of the day, from the unfairness of the tea tax to the establishment of a federal government. Though often personal and definitely partisan, the public debate was robust and free flowing, Gordon says. “The Founding Fathers looked at that and said, ‘This is what we need to preserve,’ and that world is very similar to the one we’re heading into.”

Josh Kwan (KSM06) has a one-year fellowship from the Phillips Foundation to write about Northeast Asia. Previously, he was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News and an intern in strategic planning at the New York Times.

Did you enjoy this story? If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at

Michele Weldon (J79, GJ80), assistant professor of journalism, leads a writing class in the McCormick Tribune Center.
Michele Weldon (J79, GJ80), assistant professor of journalism, leads a writing class in the McCormick Tribune Center. Photo by Andrew Campbell
Medill students work the controls in a broadcast studio. With a growing emphasis on multimedia skills in the news industry, Medill students are encouraged to learn to produce content for audio, video and text.
Medill students work the controls in a broadcast studio. With a growing emphasis on multimedia skills in the news industry, Medill students are encouraged to learn to produce content for audio, video and text. Photo by Andrew Campbell