National Press Club

The News Biz: The Best of Times, the Not-so-Best of Times, Panel Says

March 4, 2008 | By Sylvia Smith

INDIANAPOLIS – Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star, has been in the newspaper business 38 years.

“I’ve never been so frustrated,” he told an audience in Indianapolis Tuesday. “But I’ve never been as energized.”

Ryerson said the economic challenges of the newspaper industry are undeniable, but the opportunities are bountiful to reshape newspapers, use different technologies, reach readers in ways that dramatically affect their lives.

Ryerson was one of four panelists at one of the National Press 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.

Other participants were Bob Zaltsberg, editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times; Cheryl Jackson, visiting professor of broadcast journalism at Indiana University and a former WRTV-6 reporter in Indianapolis; and Emily Metzgar, assistant professor of journalism at IU specializing in the impact of social media on the political process.

Zaltsberg and Metzgar said it’s exciting to watch members of a community take a deep interest in news and news coverage and to want to participate in it.

“There are a lot of citizens out there that are real junkies of local government that are looking at what the city council is doing. If we haven’t covered a meeting or we haven’t covered an issue that’s important to them, they’ll call us out on it,” Zaltzberg said. “In that regard, they really help us.”

Metzgar said as the number of reporters shrinks, “you have citizens filling in the gaps. The citizens, the bloggers, whatever you want to call them … are indeed picking up a lot of the pieces. Are they professional reporters? No. But at the national level and at the state level you see time and again examples of how a story that was not picked up on by state media or national media is picked up by somebody who happened to be present, happens to have a certain area of expertise on a policy issue, happened to just catch video of somebody saying just he wrong thing.”

But the panelists issued a cautionary note about the need to vet citizen submissions.

“Our future depends on getting it right,” Ryerson said.

The journalist members of the panel identified the excitement of working in a changing environment, but they universally acknowledged the down side.

“Where’s the revenue? As long as people that own newspapers and stockholders want to have the kind of profit margins they’re used to,” Zaltsberg said, “that’s where the pity party is,” referring to concern journalists have raised about the industry-wide job contraction. “Newspaper companies are not making the kind of money that sustains the operation the way we have grown up to appreciate – the size of the newsroom, the number of reporters.”

As a result, Ryerson said, newspapers will have to decide what they can give up.

“The days of the daily newspaper being a supermarket basket full of information for everybody are over,” he said.

The panel was moderated by NPC President Sylvia Smith, the Washington editor of the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette, and was sponsored by the Indiana University School of Journalism.