News Executive Tells Graduates about “New World Order”

May 12, 2006

Top newspaper executive Sue Clark-Johnson told graduating Cronkite School students that the media world is in the midst of a “wild-fire transition” that presents both great challenges and unparalleled opportunities.

Clark-Johnson, president of the newspaper division of Gannett Co. and former publisher of The Arizona Republic, delivered the keynote speech at the Cronkite School’s inaugural spring convocation ceremony.

“Are you ready to dive headfirst into a complex world of media environments and customer expectations? A world that is changing so fast that we are both challenged and exhilarated,” she said.

“One thing is for sure: Like the old Royal typewriter that once produced my byline on countless newspaper stories, time has passed by the traditional newsroom,” she said. “This wild-fire transition terrifies many of my newspaper colleagues in spite of the urgent need to change. But for you – at the dawn of your professional careers – this New World Order of Newsgathering will be the most exciting, fast-paced and rewarding era in journalism history.”

Clark-Johnson said the newspaper industry has been slow to adjust to the dramatic changes in news distribution and news consumption habits. But “if we are smart and nimble, we won’t die and we won’t miss the information revolution unfolding before us.”

The following is the full text of Clark-Johnson’s convocation speech:

Dean Callahan; associate deans Marianne Barrett and Frederic Leigh; Manny Romero, president of the Cronkite School alumni chapter; Ward Bushee, editor of The Arizona Republic, representing the Cronkite Board; honored guests, families and most importantly, the Class of 2006 … thank you for this privilege.

To all the graduates here today, congratulations on this important milestone in your life. You are graduating from a first-rate program that I know has given you a firm and contemporary foundation for the work you will pursue.

Convocation addresses are the trickier of the assignments I have had in my journalism career. I realize this better be brief and, perhaps the most memorable advice I can give you is offered up by the journalist Russell Baker, who told graduates:

“The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess.”

That’s memorable, but not what I want to offer you tonight.

In fact, I encourage you to go “out there.”

It’s an exciting time.

We live in Arizona – a state of dynamic transition. You are graduating from a university in dynamic transition. You are about to enter a profession in startling transition.

Whether you pursue journalism – digital, broadcast, print or some combination … or you pursue media production … or public relations …Are you ready to dive headfirst into a complex world of media environments and customer expectations? … A world that is changing so fast that we are both challenged and exhilarated – at least I am.

We are challenged …

… by the Internet

… by cell phones and iPods

… by satellite radio

… by a rapidly changing marketplace

… by stark generational differences in information consumption

… by citizen journalism

… by devices unimagined but surely coming

… and yes, we are challenged by our reluctance to change approaches and behaviors that led to astounding success for a long time, but today need revision … Some say extreme revision.

Tom Peters poses the challenge this way:

“Banking is necessary; banks are not;

Automobiles are necessary; automobile dealers are not;

Groceries are necessary; grocery stores are not.”

Are media necessary? I’d say yes.

Are newspapers and TV stations necessary? I’d say no – unless we make them relevant for customers in today and tomorrow’s new environments.

Are you joining a dying industry? Is traditional media going the way of the buggy whip? Remember the last buggy whip maker probably made superb buggy whips. The only problem? His customers had moved on and the buggy whip maker missed it.

Well, if we are smart and nimble, we won’t die and we won’t miss the information revolution unfolding before us.

You are joining a world in which more people are practicing journalism than ever before … or at least participating in the media world … driven of course by the Web sites, PDAs, cell phones and blogs…

And we face big issues. Just what is journalism today? For example, does a blog qualify as a journalistic enterprise? Or is it a new form? There is confusion.

Last month, the LA Times suspended the blog of a business columnist when it was revealed he had posted comments on the Times’ Web site and other sites under phony names. What this case and others tell us is this: the game has changed and we need new definitions, new approaches and new players.

This media disruption is reminding us of what a retired auto executive said some years back – well before the Internet exploded into popular use:

“The customer dictates the market, not the supplier.”

The customer is telling us what kinds of news and information they want, and where they want it, and when they want it.

We are practicing journalism at speeds unimaginable … even five years ago … or even three years ago. This is both an asset and a liability – because it increases what columnist Ellen Goodman describes as:

“The tension between getting it first and getting it right.”

That tension can be a benefit if it makes us better digital journalists.

Consider what the magazine the Economist had to say this month:

“The era of mass media is giving way to one of personal and participatory media. … The boundaries between audiences and creators become blurred. … This has profound implications for traditional business models in the media industry, which are based on aggregating large passive audiences and holding them captive.”

So where will you fit in? Where will I fit in? Where will traditional media fit as we explore the new media spaces? I can’t answer those questions with any precision, but I believe the following:

One, newspapers and TV stations are best positioned to move further into the digital word. Why? One word: Credibility.

Yes, our customers get cranky with us on a regular basis, sometimes for good reasons.

But they also believe what they read or see on our pages or our screen more than any other mediums. They trust the local brand, whether it’s The Arizona Republic or KPNX Channel 12.

That’s why the Web sites of established media are the most popular news and information sites in any market – with newspapers leading the way.

The Gannett Company’s Web sites last year attracted 21 million unique visitors reaching almost 14% of the Internet audience. That’s an indication of how powerful our brand is.

Brand matters. Newspapers and TV stations don’t need more brand awareness, they need more brand adoption.

And the digital space is where we are going to get more brand adoption … delivering news to your cell phone, iPod or whatever device is just around the corner … news you’ve selected to get, not what we’ve decided to send you. You want Cubs baseball results; you get them in real time. You want the president’s speeches; you get them in real time. You want ads for washing machines being sold near your home, you get them in real time. You want your stock portfolio; you get it in real time.

Practicing journalism in this new space is requiring us to write smarter and even shorter. In one sense, we’ve gone back to the future.

Reporters are now writing first for the Web – short breaking news items like we did before radio and TV news took over that role – and then we are writing for the print edition. Web first, with updates as needed, then the newspaper. This flip-flop is absolutely as exciting as it is essential. Customers want news now! But they also want context and depth. The detail can and should follow in print.

Despite all the change, some things, at least for me, remain constant.

One is the recipe for professional success. Here’s mine: A deliberate and dedicated work ethic, honesty, curiosity, nimbleness and focusing on the job at hand.

Second, our obligations to a free and unfettered press remain constant – whatever the platforms are that we deliver news and information on. This means that we must be ever vigilant about our work – that it is always accurate and fair … and that we shine light in dark corners whenever and wherever we find it. An industry cliché sets our mission: That we publish the news without fear or favor.

And we do so because press freedom is under assault in this country – more so than any time in my memory … under assault from the federal government, from the courts, from all forms of political persuasion. To illustrate this, consider that the Gannett Company last year spent nearly $3 million to defend its journalists and its news operations in First Amendment and libel court cases. And that’s just one company.

Likewise, Walter Cronkite is just one man. But what he has meant to Americans in terms of press freedom, media credibility and a watchdog legacy absolutely must be sustained in this era of transition even as we likety-split into the future.

I am certain, that you must be asking where YOU fit in the journalism future?

One thing is for sure: Like the old Royal typewriter that once produced my byline on countless newspaper stories, time has passed by the traditional newsroom.

This wild-fire transition terrifies many of my newspaper colleagues in spite of the urgent need to change.

But for you – at the dawn of your professional careers – this New World Order of Newsgathering will be the most exciting, fast-paced and rewarding era in journalism history.

In my company, the historic transition away from the siloed newsroom is already underway.

A new structure of newsgathering is emerging that will integrate journalists, innovation, technology, training and audience knowledge in an organized fashion to produce the aggregation of products that are right for news and information consumers. No news organization like it has ever been envisioned.

The new structure will be called the Information Center.

It will be a smart and strategic collection of news collectors and presenters who both maintain our journalistic traditions but also shape us for the future. It will be organized in teams – each represented by news gatherers with special skills designed to serve specific audiences – from Baby Boomers, to young adults like you, to Spanish-speakers – and many more.

In the Information Center, for instance, there will be a team devoted to breaking news ceaselessly at a very local level – or providing what we might call instant information first to an online and TV audience.

This concept was tested right here in Phoenix over the past holiday season when the Republic dispatched a dozen students from the Cronkite school to the airport in an experiment. For several days, the students posted updates on airport crowds directly to azcentral.com in 15-minute increments. The instant information of holiday airport traffic reached 20,000 new consumers – and presto – we had a brand new audience.

The Information Center can preserve the print watchdog legacy of the old print newsroom that includes the investigative reports in The Arizona Republic and other newspapers around the country. That is our commitment and responsibility.

But less certain is who will carry the Walter Cronkite torch – and that of many other legendary journalism pioneers – into the digital world.

The Web is in the silent movie stage of development. At some point, I believe editors with news judgment will marshal accuracy and bring the voice of ethical standards into what is now a chaotic, unfiltered news medium. The important journalism and respected credibility that Walter Cronkite brought to a prime-time TV generation has not emerged yet on the Web. What will it take to bring credible, in-depth, investigative reports that will be relevant on the Web?

How fitting would it be if one of you pioneers the content and form of significant First Amendment journalism for the mass of Americans who make the internet their destination for news and information.

So when you do go “out there” as Russell Baker put it, keep your eyes and our minds wide open to the possibilities and the opportunities, personally and professionally. I got into this profession because I hoped that in some small way I could be part of making a difference in people’s lives. Today I wish that for you … as well as a life that’s balanced, full and rich.

So, as I began with Russell Baker, I’ll end with former NYT report-turned author, Anna Quindlen, who said:

“Get a life, a real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck or the large house.

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water…

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.

Get a life in which you are generous. And realize that life is the best thing ever and you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about goodness you want to spread it around.”

It is easy to exist instead of to live.

Go out there and live.

Congratulations, Class of 2006 graduates.