"Save journalism from the news business." 2024 Joe Creason Lecture by Al Cross

Joe Creason Lecture in Journalism, University of Kentucky, April 9, 2024

By Al Cross
Director emeritus, Institute for Rural Journalism

First I want to thank our director of the School of Journalism and Media, Erika Engstrom, for asking me to give this lecture, and for some colleagues in the school, including my successor, Benjy Hamm, for suggesting that I be asked do it. Benjy is the successor I wanted at the Institute for Rural Journalism, and he’s off to a fine start.

I feel a connection to Joe Creason not only for the reasons Jennifer mentioned, but because just like Joe, I never really wanted to work outside Kentucky. And like him, I’m from one of those many little-known rural counties in the far reaches of the state, and I know how much counties like that need good journalism. That’s one big reason I decided 20 years ago to conclude my career here, as an Extension professor at the state’s main land-grant institution.

Another reason this is a special honor for me is that I share the spotlight with six journalists whom I have known and admired, for very different reasons, and one I never knew – but one who was a legend at The Courier-Journal and left there shortly before I arrived in 1978: Kyle Vance. He was the leading pioneer of modern investigative reporting in Kentucky.

Another C-J legend was my friend Sheldon Shafer, who is not with us tonight because he died yesterday, after a long illness. A moment of silence for him, please.

And completing the C-J’s hat trick tonight is my friend Betty BayĆ©, who stared Kentucky’s racists in the face and made them howl.

There’s Debbie Givens, my Al Smith Communications colleague, who showed before I did that a community newspaper editor can climb the journalism academic ladder.

And I couldn’t have asked for a better academic colleague than Scoobie Ryan, whose students loved her. She’s not here because of an illness in her family, but the latest news on that is good.

The highest-ranking journalist with us tonight is Peter Baniak, the Kentucky editor who made the most of his newspaper in the last decade, which has been a very tough one for newspapers and the democracy they serve.

That’s almost my lede – but not quite. The other Hall of Fame inductee tonight is Paul Prather, who remains in journalism but has a higher calling. Paul, your Sunday columns make this believer the closest thing he has to a pastor.

I’d like to think that the calling we journalists share with Paul is an elevated one, too: giving people the information they need to be citizens in a democracy. Bryant Williams, a great publisher from Paris, Tennessee – almost in Kentucky – said this about journalism: “The only higher calling is the ministry.”

And why do we honor people such as these? Because they are good examples of our high calling. And why are you here? Because you care about them, or you care about journalism, or both – or maybe just because you care about democracy, and perhaps you doubt that journalism isn’t properly serving democracy.

Journalism is in trouble, mainly because the news business is in trouble. I think too many of us forget that journalism and the news business are not the same thing. The news business pays for journalism, which can be done for free, though usually with little impact. I like to say that every American has the First Amendment right to commit journalism.

That verb is instructive. With that right comes the need to exercise it responsibly. That’s why I’ve long been active in the Society of Professional Journalists, which exists to protect and improve journalism. At an SPJ function a few days ago, someone pleaded, “Please save journalism.” I replied, “Please save journalism from the news business.”

When you hear the news business is in trouble, you think mainly about newspapers, which have seen the destruction of their business model: a news medium that reached most people and thus attracted the advertising revenue needed to pay reporters, photographers, editors, ad people and everyone who gets the paper out.

But other parts of the news business are being squeezed, too, by the proliferation of sources of news, information and entertainment made possible by the digital world in which we live. Those of us in journalism have been disappointed to learn the fact that Americans don’t like news as much as we thought they did.

In my early days at The Courier-Journal, the newspaper reached well over half the households in the Louisville metropolitan area. Today, the average household penetration of most daily newspapers is less than 10 percent. Broadcast stations are struggling to maintain their revenue, and their news products are declining, too.

Truth be told, Americans would rather be entertained than informed, and those two things are in competition for Americans’ limited time. When it comes time to renew a subscription to one or the other, subscribers often weigh news versus streaming service, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The news business has known the appeal of entertainment for a long time, so it’s always had journalists offer some sizzle with the steak. We didn’t mind a well-chosen dose of that, because we knew it helped build and maintain the mass audiences necessary to support that old advertising-based model.

Today, there’s often more sizzle than steak, as news outlets run major stories about such things as new restaurants in an apparent effort to make themselves relevant to the daily lives of people who don’t care much about the news. But let’s just be blunt and call them people who have decided, perhaps unconsciously, not to be full-fledged citizens -- because they are so ill-informed.

This was not what the founders of our country had in mind. In 1822, former President James Madison wrote Kentucky’s lieutenant governor, William Barry, on the occasion of the state’s first support of public education. I use one line of Madison’s letter below my signature on every UK email I send: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

By “popular information,” Madison meant information that was widely distributed, among all walks of life. Today, we are losing that, as Americans pick and choose among sources of information – some of them masquerading as journalism – that fit their view of the world.

They may say they’re looking for INformation, but many of them just want CONfirmation, of the views they have, rather than information that might run contrary to those views.

Four hundred years before Madison wrote Barry, Vespasiano da Bisticci was born in northern Italy. He became a great librarian of the early Renaissance and summed up one of its humanist imperatives: “All evil is born from ignorance.” Perhaps we should note that Bisticci was a victim of technological progress, too; he retired early, because Gutenberg’s printing press was displacing the illuminated manuscripts that were his stock in trade.

“All evil is born from ignorance.” Is it still true? Today, we might say that too much technological knowledge is encouraging evil. Today, despite having more information at its hands than ever before, American society is becoming more ignorant. And that is fueling all sorts of evil, which would take a whole ‘nother speech to describe, and I don’t want to make this political.

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, journalism prevented a lot of evil. The Courier-Journal had reporters in every corner of the state, and when some local official was straying from the straight and narrow, there were people in every town who knew that reporter and could blow the whistle. Kyle Vance got a lot of those calls.

Newspapers have been the main finders of fact for citizens, which is an essential function in a democracy. There’s been a lot said and written in the last few years about the NUMBER of newspapers that have closed or merged, but we don’t just have a problem of quantity of news outlets. We have a problem of quality. I see a lot more substandard journalism at all levels today than I did five years ago, and a heck of a lot more than 10 years ago.

Journalists have been reluctant to say that sort of thing publicly, because it calls for examples, and we don’t like to disparage journalists who are trying to do their best in a bad situation. There are hardly any paid media critics these days, and the remaining ones pay little attention to local journalism, because there’s so much bad journalism—or propaganda masquerading as journalism—at the national level.

But what about journalism academics, who are protected by academic freedom and tenure? We’re supposed to base our conclusions on empirical evidence, but in journalism quality is harder to measure. It’s not that much harder, really, it just takes a lot more time and effort, and unfortunately journalism researchers and funders have not been willing to invest that time and effort.

And what’s the result of this decline in quantity and quality? Research shows that we get a lot of bad things: more polarization, fewer candidates for local office, less knowledge about those who do run, lower voter turnout, more government waste and corruption, higher taxes and higher borrowing costs for local governments, and less volunteer activity and civic engagement.

Less local news leads to more polarization because information vacuum has been filled by national news, which is more polarizing, and by social media, which are much less accurate and often wildly inaccurate or misleading.

We need to do more to remind our friends and neighbors of the differences in social media and news media. Here’s my elevator speech on that:

The news business pays for journalism, which practices a discipline of verification – we tell you how we know something, or we attribute it. And we’re mainly about fact, not opinion. Social media are mainly about opinion, and have little or no discipline or verification. Which of the two should you trust?

The news business uses journalism to make money, but largely gives it lip service when it comes to improving and protecting it. When you defend and promote journalism as the great servant of democracy, that implies a high standard of responsibility, and the major companies in the news business know that many of their news products can’t withstand the strict scrutiny that a high standard of responsibility requires.

In a media environment where every news and information outlet is hungry for audience – subscribers and clicks – too many news outlets are giving their audiences what they want instead of what they need. Even some big newspapers fear their audiences’ politics.

At one major newspaper in a red state, the bosses are so afraid of reader pushback that any story that even mentions Donald Trump’s name has to be approved by an assistant managing editor or higher-ranking editor, and the paper doesn’t use the verb “claims” to describe Trump’s falsehoods. I think most of them are outright lies, but I can’t read his mind – not that I would want to.

The rise of Trump and social media have combined to increase interest in national news and decrease interest in local news. When the two biggest newspapers in Pennsylvania offered a free subscription to 2,500 local residents who had responded to political surveys a free subscription to their local newspapers, only 44 accepted. (Source: Dan Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania)

I think a free newspaper subscription would find more takers in smaller markets, where there is a greater sense of community and common interest, but we must look at such stark examples and ask ourselves: What is journalism supposed to be about? What is its ultimate purpose?

The answer, I think, lies in the reason we have a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition and religion. James Madison and the founders knew that self-government required an informed public.

In 1822, that came mainly from people reading competing, partisan newspapers. For most of the last century, it came from newspapers that were mainly monopolies but followed standards of responsibility, and most citizens in any given locality read them.

Today, they’re less interested in local news, which probably seems boring compared to the national-oriented information they get on social media, and they are much less likely to get information that challenges them.

Now, you may think I am painting a pretty dark landscape here, but I want everyone in this room to leave here with a greater concern about the future of journalism and democracy. Having said that, I am also obliged to say there have been some encouraging developments lately.

First, newspapers are surviving because a relatively small number of people are willing to pay $100 a month or more to support them, knowing that local newspapers are a public good.

Second, thanks mainly to philanthropy, there are still jobs for young journalists in places like the Kentucky Lantern and Report for America, which has corps members at several Kentucky newspapers.

The Lantern is part of States Newsroom, which now has affiliates in every state. States Newsroom has reversed the three-decade decline in coverage of state governments. States is uneven; its best operations are worthy replacements, but many aren’t there yet, partly because their reporters are young. They will improve with experience. But they also need to do more to increase their audience.

Third, there are several successful online startups, such as Hoptown Chronicle in Christian County and the Northern Kentucky Tribune and Link NKY. Jennifer P. Brown of the Chronicle says, “I believe philanthropy and nonprofits will save journalism for those willing to engage with the news rather than endlessly scrolling for entertainment.”

Fourth, we have seen the rise of new newspaper owners who are buying papers from chains that have turned them into ghost newspapers, living in form only, not in substance. Jeremy Gulban, whom we hosted at last year’s National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, is the leader; he’s bought more than 50 newspapers from Gannett and is making them local again.

Another encouraging development is the recognition by public officials and many in the news business that we need public policies that support local journalism. Benjy and I are part of the Rebuild Local News coalition, which is making progress on this front in several states.

Many journalists recoil from the idea of government support for news, but this country has been subsidizing newspapers through relatively low postage rates since the days of Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin. The key is making the policies content-neutral, such as tax credits for advertising and newsroom employees.

There’s been no effort in Kentucky to do this, but one may be coming; a leader of the state Senate handed me a note a few weeks ago saying he considers local reporting to be vital and has a problem with what he called “self-styled, social-media, faux journalism.” That legislator understands journalism’s essential role in the public’s business.

Now, not all legislators are as enlightened as that one, partly because there are fewer journalists covering Frankfort, so the news business has to spend some time and money explaining the value of journalism – and live up to those ideals, by not using clicks and page views to drive judgments about what stories are covered or what opinions are published.

Individual journalists must dedicate themselves to doing the best job possible and explaining their craft to their audiences. This should be a daily routine, and I wish every news organization had an explainer box with its own elevator speech and a commitment to public service.

Journalism academics should measure quality, point it out, and also the shortcomings. And continue the research that shows the value of local journalism. That will help convince other segments of society.

Journalism must be seen as a civic good by the various groups that make up society; as Alberto Ibarguen, former head of the Knight Foundation, told philanthropies that have one main interest, you should make journalism your second priority, because everything is partly dependent on it.

And if news organizations are going ask their audiences for donations to so support local news, on top of what they are already paying for subscriptions, they need to reveal their profit margins, or at least the goal for the current year. This is the most important piece of information that is usually missing in stories about the news business. It shouldn’t be, especially when hedge funds and other private capital own most of the newspaper circulation in America.

I could give a whole ‘nother speech about those companies, I’ll just recommend this book, Hedged, by Margot Susca, an assistant professor at American University in Washington. She says they continue “to dismantle the one institution meant to give voice to average citizens in our democracy,” and “Once we view constitutionally protected news organizations like any other widget in a capitalist economy, then our democracy is doomed.”

So, this lecture about journalism is really about something more important: democracy. All of us have said the pledge of allegiance, which is not just to the flag but to “the republic for which it stands.” When that republic was created, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

You probably know Franklin’s reply: “A republic, if you can keep it.” But you probably don’t know what he said about the Constitution in a speech near the end of the convention. He said the government was “likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government.”

The present circumstances of our politics make Franklin’s prediction freshy relevant. If we are to prevent that prediction from coming true in our time as citizens, we have to understand what Franklin meant in his reply to the questioner.

What Franklin meant, says Dean Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania, is that “Democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”

I think that “active and informed involvement” is declining because journalism is declining. So we need to make Americans aware of the need to commit journalism, in the service of our democratic republic.

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