National Press Club

Election Provided "Wake-up Call" for Traditional Media, Panel Says

November 10, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY - The way the presidential election was covered - and the public's reaction to it - was a wake-up call to traditional media that it must maintain its credibility if it is going to stay
alive, leading journalists here told a National Press Club forum Thursday.

"On Tuesday night, for the first time in the history of the craft, there were so many voices that it was very difficult to separate the voice of what we would call traditional media and the voice of all the others," said Con Psarras, news director at KSL-TV, the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate. "That confuses people."

As the traditional news media goes through what he called "a painful transition," it must maintain its role as providers of credible, non-biased information, Psarras said. That may mean dropping anything that appears to be opinion, whether its columns or editorials or opinion blogs, he said.

"What we heard was this chorus of voices that boiled down to disrespect for old media," he said. "We heard it daily, and we heard it loudly, and it was disturbing. 'You're not covering this because you're biased' or 'this is a story that you have not sent reporters to investigate,' and 'I heard this on the Internet, and why aren't you reporting it.' Many, many times we have no answers to those questions that are satisfactory," he said.

Credibility is "a commodity we convey," he said. "If we lose that, we're out of business."

Psarras 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.

"I think it was a wake-up call for the media," said Terry Orme, managing editor of the Salt Lake Tribune. "For newspapers, the digital media presents some scary prospects. But it also presents a great opportunity. It puts us back into the breaking-news business. But our core mission remains the same ... to inform and explain, to investigate and to be the watchdog."

It took a while for the newspaper to get away from holding big stories until the next morning's edition, he said. Now it posts everything on the Web as soon as it is verified information.

The challenge, he said, is to provide the news where people want it and when they want it. But the paper cannot ignore its print edition, Orne said, because it is still making the money that supports everything else. Providing a credible news organization requires a lot of people and costs a lot, he said. No one has yet to come up with an alternative way to provide that revenue.

The newspaper, Orme said, must maintain the quality of the print product, aggressively push onto the Internet with breaking news, and develop niche publications that will bring in new money to pay for everything else.

Allowing readers and viewers to engage in a conversation about the news on the Web site is important, he said. But the newspaper must maintain the difference between journalism produced by the newspaper and opinion that comes from readers.

"You have to have a firewall between what you do as journalists and what you're getting from the outside," Orme said. "Because it is not journalism. It's no way, shape or form journalism."

Edward Pease, a journalism professor at Utah State University, said the "noise" generated by all of the new media is making it more difficult for traditional media to maintain its authority.

"It is the job of the journalist to make sense of all that noise," he said. "I don't envy the challenges of either the old technology or the new technology to figure out a way to have a voice that is
authoritative. Given all the voices, having one or two or a handful of identifiable places where you can make sense of the world is a valuable thing."

Psarras said he doubted whether all of the traditional news organizations in Salt Lake City - four television stations and two newspapers -- would survive the transition. KS L-TV jumped early onto the Internet, beating Craig's List to become an online marketplace. Seeing the popularity of that, he said, the station built a news product around it.

"We incrementally added to the Web staff to the point where it started to scare some of the people in television," he said. "They fear that one day the old media would die and the new media would be born. We would turn the lights off on the TV studio and turn the lights on in the Web news room, and there would be all these people already there."

The next forum is tonight, Nov. 10, as a webcast to journalism schools at universities in Alaska, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Idaho.

Watch the webcast at