National Press Club

Concentrate on What You Do Best, Panelists Say

October 22, 2008 | By Gil Klein

PORTLAND – News organizations cannot be all things to all people, even if they have the technology to provide it, leading Oregon journalists told a National Press Club Centennial Forum here Tuesday.

Instead, they said, to attract an audience in this time of turmoil in the news business, they must concentrate on being the most authoritative voice in those areas they do best.

“We are much more about the why and the how and who has the power and how are they using that power and influence than about recording everything that moves,” said Sandra Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian, which has won five Pulitizer Prizes under her leadership.

She has been forced to cut her staff to reflect revenue losses, she said, even while providing some of the additional bells and whistles that are demanded by changes in technology of the Internet.

To compensate, her paper can no longer provide coverage of every new development on every story, she said. It must give readers stories in depth, maybe just one big story on the front page.

“It’s a clear choice I am making with these resources,” she said. “That’s how journalism should change. The more cacophony there is in the marketplace, the more (readers) need to know what can (they) rely on.”

Rowe was speaking at one of the Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary. At each forum, the Club gathers a panel of leading local journalists to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values.

The Portland forum was co-sponsored by the University of Oregon’s Turnbull Portland Center.

Mike Donahue, a reporter and anchor for KOIN-TV in Portland, said being a trusted source of news is difficult for television journalism in the face of cutbacks. Just in the nightly news, he said, he has to do a version of a story for the 5:00, 5:30 and 6:00 o’clock reports.

“Where is the perspective or context gone with my story?” he said. “We have to produce these stories faster and faster and faster with fewer people. That is a huge challenge.”

Eve Epstein, executive producer of Oregon Public Broadcasting's experimental

“Think Out Loud” program, said she has found a way to combine a traditional public radio talk program with an online conversation.

“One thing that public radio does well is dialogue, discourse and conversation,” she said. “When we decided we wanted to do a regional call-in program, it seemed as though online conversations might be a natural fit for that.”

But the key, she said, is sticking to your strengths.

“We know radio really well. We know sound really well. We don’t know print and graphics well,” she said. “There is so much technology out there. You can do the throw-it-against-the-wall-and see-if-it-sticks method or you can think deeply about what you are trying to do and how the technology will enhance that.”

Mark Blaine is working to reconstruct the University of Oregon’s journalism curriculum.

“I am concerned about the lack of journalists as entrepreneurs,” he said. “The computer scientists seem to be seizing the day and developing all this new stuff, and they don’t have the values of the Fourth Estate.”

If journalists could be involved in developing these new forms of communication, he said, then they could apply journalistic values to them in advance instead of trying “to retrofit the good values and ethics to something like YouTube.”

The next forum, co-sponsored by the University of Washington in Seattle is today.