National Press Club

Fragmenting Audiences Require News Organizations to Rethink Mission

October 8, 2008

RICHMOND, Va. – Fragmenting audiences are making it more difficult for news organizations to identify whom they are reaching so they can convince advertisers to support their journalism, leading Virginia journalists said at an NPC Centennial Forum here Monday.

“The press used to sit as the tollgate,” said Reid Ashe, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Media General Inc., a newspaper, television and online news company. “Now there is no gate any more. It is a free-for-all. I fear in the present, and perhaps in the future as well, there is going to be fewer resources to do good journalism.”

Before there were newspapers and broadcast news, people got their information from travelers, who would tell their stories and answer their questions, he said. People could discuss the information among each other. With the Internet, journalism is returning to that form.

“We don’t know how it’s all going to sort out,” he said. “We need to be alert to the clues as they emerge.”

Ashe was speaking at one of the Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” that 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.

At the Richmond forum, co-sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Mass Communication, the discussion focused on the need for news organizations to define their audience and how to pay for watchdog journalism.

WCVE, the Richmond public radio station, was the media sponsor for the event and will air the forum on Sunday evening.

The challenge with the new technology is that while news organizations now CAN do anything, they have to decide what they SHOULD do, said Nancy Kent, news director at Richmond’s NBC 12.

The canon of news stories – those six or eight topics that everyone knew had to be covered – no longer applies, she said. Now, news organizations are looking for an editorial voice that will attract people they can sell to an advertiser.

“We are finding themselves very stressed as we look to find out where is my dollar going to come from so that I can keep people running around to develop this material,” she said.

Bob Sullivan, who writes for, said online news services are turning to unpaid bloggers to keep fresh information coming in at a low price. But that has its risks.

Last week, ran an iReport from a blogger that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a heart attack, he said.

“It was just a blogger writing something that was 100 percent false,” he said. “But because it was under the CNN brand, it carried a lot more weight than any anonymous blogger would.”

A few more blunders like that, he said, may undermine “citizen journalism” and give more credibility to trained reporters who do not report news that they have not confirmed.

In a time when advertisers may only pay for news according to how many hits it gets on the Internet, it will be difficult for news organizations to do expensive watchdog journalism, said Jeff South, a VCU professor of investigative reporting.

“A lot of that public service journalism is going to go away, and we need to find a way to preserve it,” he said.

At the national level, some non-profit investigative news organizations are being created through grants and donations, he said. But at the local level, finding that kind of money and expertise will be difficult.

The public may have to rely on bloggers who are willing to focus on certain investigations, he said.

“We are moving toward a pro-am model of journalists where you have professional and amateurs,” he said.

The NPC Centennial Forums program is sponsored by Aviva USA.


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