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As newspaper revenues continue to fall across the United States, Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, said the fate of journalism is in the hands of the American people.
“Americans will ultimately decide what kind of news they will consume,” said Downie, who stepped down recently as executive editor of the Post after 17 years. “They will decide it by what they read, what they decide to watch on television and what they click onto their computers and handheld devices. They will decide by what kinds of news they are willing to pay for.”
Downie delivered Arizona State University’s Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture at the Galvin Playhouse on ASU’s Tempe campus Oct. 16.
He also spoke to students, faculty and staff at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Monday as part of the school’s “Must See Mondays Speaker Series.”
Professor Tim McGuire, former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, led Downie in a wide-ranging conversation about his career, the future of the news business and what makes good journalism.
Downie said he’s convinced that demand remains strong for investigative and enterprise reporting like the work his paper did to expose mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. That story brought the paper 5 million page views, he said.
“The Web allows us to present journalism in better ways than ever before,” he said.
The problem is that Web revenues aren’t growing as much as print newspaper revenues are declining, and that threatens the quality of newspapers. “If newsrooms keep shrinking, I don’t know where enterprise reporting will come from,” he said.
Downie sounded a similar theme in his Flinn lecture, saying that “accountability journalism” – the kind that holds the powerful accountable – is being replaced with “infotainment and opinion.”
But Downie defended the press’ coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, despite widespread criticism from both conservatives and liberals. “It’s like a high stakes sports event, in which both teams are vigorously ripping the ref,” he said.
When asked how he would be voting, Downie said he will be sitting this election out. He stopped voting in 1984 in order to maintain his impartiality as an editor, and he said he probably won’t vote until the next election.
“As the final decision maker about my newspaper, I wanted to keep my mind open about who should be president of the United States,” he said.
Bob Nonnenmacher, a Chandler man who attended the speech, said he appreciated what Downie had to say.
“I thought it was a good snapshot of the role of journalism since the advent of the Internet,” Nonnenmacher said. “He posed some really effective rhetorical questions.”