National Press Club

Industry Downturn Spurs Gov't Push Back on Info

September 11, 2008 | By Gil Klein

DENVER – Squeezed for profits, news media companies no longer are pushing for access to information as they once did, a panel of Denver journalists said at a National Press Club forum here Tuesday.

“The media seems less and less willing to fight back and to challenge government authority in a legal sense,” said Brad Maass, who leads the investigative team at Denver’s CBS 4.

He was speaking at a National Press Club Centennial Forum on the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the future of journalism. It was held at the Denver Press Club.

In the past, the government knew that the media would take legal action every time information was restricted, Maass said. But now the government has gotten “pretty canny in knowing” that with financial pressures “there’s less fight in the media to battle for information.”

Many new Web sites are attracting big audiences, but they are not spending money to challenge the government for information, said Mark Cardwell, managing editor/digital editor of the Denver Post.

The Post is suing for the release of the Colorado governor’s cell phone records, he said, but at the national level the government is putting up more restrictions on information because “they know it’s expensive to sue, and the news media don’t have a lot of money.”

This was one of more than 35 forums the National Press Club, the world’s leading professional organization for journalists, is sponsoring across the country to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values. The next panel is co-sponsored by West Virginia University and will be at the National Press Club on Sept. 15. It will examine the impact of blogs and YouTube on this year’s presidential election.

At the Denver forum, Patricia Calhoun, editor of Westword, an alternative weekly newspaper, said the problem now is not lack of information or access to the public.

“If you have a story you want to put up, you can put it up (on the Web),” she said. “Unfortunately, it may not be true. But you have complete access.”

More students are going into journalism than ever before, said Deb Hurley, who taught at journalism at Metropolitan State University for 21 years. All of the changes to the news business have required journalism schools to revamp their curriculum.

“We try to balance all of the multimedia aspects with the basic ability of how to gather information and tell a good story,” she said. It’s a “constant struggle” to determine what skills students need to get jobs in the business.

As newsrooms are slashed, newspapers and television stations are becoming more dependent on “amateur journalists” who may go to a school board meeting and post something to a Web site that alerts a news organization about controversial issues, Cardwell said.

“I like to tell people in our newsroom we’re not gatekeepers any more -- we’re guides,” he said. “We will be guiding people to interesting things that can be found on the Web.”