In the past few days it's been my pleasure to speak to several college classes of extremely bright communications students.
Some of them plan to go into public relations when they graduate.
Some seek a career in television.
But a surprising, and heartening, number plan to try their hand at print newspapers, despite gloomy questioning by some outsiders as to whether the print newspaper is an endangered species.
The answer to that question, of course, is that newspapers that adapt to changing circumstances and media culture are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. If that is not the case, then the savvy media folks who just spent many millions of dollars to buy up papers like the Knight Ridder group, and the smart investors currently offering large sums for such a flagship paper as the Los Angeles Times, are in for a horrendous surprise.
True, the circulation of many newspapers is down in the past year. So is advertising linage. To cut costs, some newspapers have laid off staff.
But there have been peaks and valleys in the newspaper business before, as well as dire predictions about their longevity. With the advent of commercial radio, some pessimists declared that the demise of newspapers could not be far off. They proved to be wrong. With the arrival of television, first in black and white, and then in color, the naysayers again predicted the doom of newspapers. They again proved to be wrong.
Now we have the Internet, which is the first choice of provider for many in the new generation of information consumers. But there are a couple of factors to remember.
First, there is typically no news on the Internet without a news organization, usually a newspaper, to provide it. Over time, the means of delivery may change. But we will still need reporters to go out and gather information, photographers to illustrate it, artists to make supporting charts, and graphics to help explain it, and editors who are the gatekeepers to ensure that content is accurate, relevant, and meets community standards of taste.
Second, any weirdo or conspiracy theorist can get on the Internet and offer his or her version of "factual" news. "The internet is a gateway to a flood of information but it's a flood of decreasing reliability.... When we let a thousand flowers bloom, we get many dandelions," writes MIT graduate Bob Seidensticker, a lifelong veteran of the computer business, in his new book, "Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change."
The busy viewer deserves a trusted newspaper to give credibility to the information he or she finds on the Internet. I love The New Yorker cartoon of the dog typing away at the keyboard of a computer. He is saying to his doggy friend sitting beside him: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
For years, many newspapers have offered their content on the Internet, even though there was little or no income from it. They wanted to keep abreast of the technology as a hedge against the time when electronic versions would become competitive and remunerative. As advertisers have come to see the potential, those days are dawning. But for most papers, the revenue from their Web operations is still substantially less than their revenue from advertising in, and sales of, their print product.
Thus, in addition to embracing the Web and making it more profitable, prudent newspapers are seeking additional sources of revenue, such as subsidiary niche publications that cater to specific sectors of their audiences.
The two biggest challenges confronting newspapers today are first, this pace of new technology, and second, the erosion of journalistic ethics on the part of some ambitious but ruthless journalists. While thousands of journalists across the country are performing their duties with honesty and integrity, the profession is besmirched by the recent malfeasance of a few.
The New York Times and USA Today both published the work of reporters who manufactured stories about individuals and events that did not exist. When discovered, the reporters were fired and the top editors of both newspapers were forced to resign.
In television, Dan Rather similarly ended his career with CBS in disgrace after airing on the eve of the presidential election a false report questioning President Bush's service as a National Guard fighter pilot.
Whatever the medium – print, radio, television, or Internet – if news organizations are to be trusted they must prove themselves scrupulous in their insistence upon accuracy and their dedication to fairness.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.