Addressing the 54th Institute on Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University on Friday, David Carr, media and culture columnist at The New York Times, said that the time to be a journalist is now.
Carr, who writes the Times’ “Media Equation” column, spoke directly to the journalism students in the audience when he told them that “you are going to have an amazing, amazing ride.”
“The velocity of change in journalism is breathtaking,” he said, adding: “I can’t think of a more interesting time to be in the news business.”
Carr began his talk in Lee Chapel by describing the breaking news that he had covered just 24 hours earlier, when Newsweek magazine announced that it was ceasing publication of a print magazine in favor of an Internet-only publication.
Although other publications had ceased print versions, Newsweek’s decision was seen in a different light because of its former status as a major news magazine.
“In this slow diminution of the news industry,” Carr said, “Newsweek going down is a bit of a moment. You’re surrounded by invisible gas, and all of a sudden one of the canaries falls over.
“We’ve known this stuff is going around. New Orleans doesn’t have a daily newspaper. Detroit doesn’t deliver its paper four days a week, and other cities and other chains are weighing options for a lower frequency of print, having been supplanted by a digital product.”
But, Carr added, Newsweek’s fate was set even before this week’s announcement. It was, he said, “a dead magazine walking.”
“The problem with Newsweek is, what was it good at? It was good at aggregation — this is what happened last week; this is why it happened last week. Are we really short on that? Do we really need that?”
Carr said that in the five years that Newsweek has been faltering, numerous digital-only publications have begun vying for readers’ attention.
“You should not confuse the loss of the artifact with the loss of a culture of fact,” he said. “Just because there isn’t a thing doesn’t mean that journalism isn’t persisting, growing and morphing into other things. Don’t think that revolution is Armageddon. It’s the way of all things that things change.”
For years and years, Carr said, observers have said that the sky is falling on journalism. The sky is not so much falling, he said, as holes are being punched in it, with a lot of sunshine coming through.
Among the changes in the way news is transmitted, Carr pointed specifically at Twitter. The popular social media tool, he noted, was supposed to kill newspapers like the Times. Instead, “every four seconds Twitter carries new content from the New York Times to an audience we didn’t reach very often.” Carr himself has 380,000 Twitter followers.
Twenty years from now, he said, people will not believe how a traditional newspaper was created. “We used to yell ‘stop’ in the middle of the news cycle, take a bunch of words, mush them onto paper, roll them up and then throw them in people’s yards,” he said. “Think what that’s going to sound like 20 years from now.”
Carr said that the web gives journalists “a tool belt that is unbelievable,” permitting them to combine video, audio, photographs and print. That also means the lines between the traditional divisions in journalism — print, radio and TV — are blurring. “We’re all going to be in the same business,” Carr said. “We’re all going to be fighting for the same set of eyeballs.”
The two-day institute involves W&L students and media professionals and academics participating in seminars that examine case studies of ethical dilemmas presented by the practicing journalists.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs