The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta on the Future of Journalism

"Those you honor tonight put their lives on the line; I merely report on people who don’t carry guns. Which brings to mind the time a truly awesome man I don’t pretend to equal, Winston Churchill, encountered a young war hero.

'You feel very humble in my presence, don’t you?' Churchill said.

'Yes, sir,' the soldier said.

'Then perhaps you can imagine,' Churchill said, 'how humble and awkward I feel in yours.'

I’m humbled in the presence of my friend, Christiane Amanpour, who has treated news as a calling in an admirable career. We witnessed the value of her experience in volatile situations overseas when she was surrounded by an agitated mob in Cairo and calmly orchestrated a safe exit for her entire crew. A jealous news corp also witnessed how she scored the first interview with a besieged Mubarak.

Let me begin with an encounter I had in 1995 with Intel CEO Andy Grove. I was interviewing him on stage at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Dallas. The Internet was just five years old, but already there was growing concern that it would disrupt the newspaper business. 'In the future,' I asked, 'what is the value of newspaper editors?'

Silently turning his head left to right to eye the one thousand editors in attendance, Grove devilishly said, 'They will have zero value. In the digital world I can create my own newspaper and have it push to me the news I’m most interested in, be it health news or sports or local and business news. I don’t need a so-called ‘intelligent agent.’'

The editors in that hall sunk lower in their seats. Today, every journalist worries that Grove was correct. The Internet often reduces what we do to a commodity; it robs media of revenues because citizens get information for free on Google search, the Huffington Post, or on Facebook or Twitter links.

In so many ways, the digital realm is an adversary. Because news often becomes a commodity available for free and whose origin may be unclear, every journalistic institution must ask: How are we distinct from the pack? How do we make money? What is the business model that will allow us to cover expensive international news or undertake prolonged investigations? Do news aggregators add readers and ad revenue because they expose our work to more eyeballs, or do they subtract from our circulation because it is free?

In so many ways, the digital realm is also our friend. It broadens our audience. It allows us to offer online what we cannot offer in a newspaper or magazine – an archive, full motion video, interaction with our audience, and elegant portability via our mobile phones or tablets. It extends our reporting reach by making available to us citizen who can serve as part-time journalists. It’s easy to sneer at the notion of “citizen journalists” – and I will in a moment. But think of what Twitter and Facebook and mobile phone cameras did to report and record the Arab Spring, to expose the death of Khadafi, or the fraudulent election in Iran, or the devastation and depravity that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Like many of you in this room, I’m of two minds about the digital revolution. I would argue that this is OK, for as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, 'The mark of an intelligent person is someone who can keep two opposite thoughts in mind at the same time, and still function.' Our confusion is abetted by the velocity of change. Consider: It took the telephone seven decades to reach half the American population; it took electricity five decades; it took television three decades. Yet it took the Internet less than a decade; it took Facebook just five years to reach seven hundred million worldwide users.

So what is a journalist to do in this age of uncertainty? First, we must believe in ourselves. Technological advances confer on citizens an important role. But if you believe journalism is a profession – not one where you need a journalism school degree but one where training and experience is vital to gathering news, to exploring more than one side, to sifting through often contradictory statements and facts, to determining what belongs on page one and what does not, to winning reader or viewer or listeners' trust because you and your news organization is transparent – then you believe an untrained citizen should not be granted the badge of journalist.

We are supposed to be 'intelligent agents.'

Sorry, but Wikileaks is not journalism. Journalists sort out the important from the unimportant, fret about 'fairness' and multiple sources; we don’t print material that could endanger lives. We don’t just throw stuff at the wall and leave it to citizens to scrape off what they like.

If we believe in ourselves, we provide citizens with what we think they need to function as free citizens. Americans, sadly, have over the years shown less interest in what they call 'foreign news.' No doubt, this is because two vast oceans separate us, and because of a persistent strain of American isolationism. Yes, there are exceptions to this pattern. After 9/11, Americans, like the rest of the world, avidly consumed news about Islam. Just as last week we all avidly consumed news about the Greek debt crisis and the Euro.

We journalists face much chronicled economic challenges. These are usually above our pay grade to solve. But there are things within our power to change. We need encourage our news organizations to stay awake to the digital challenge. We need recognize that one way to get the better of commodity news is be distinctive. Without sacrificing facts or sensationalizing, journalists have to be better story tellers.

Journalists also need recognize that the digital revolution requires them to be adept not just as story tellers but to master multimedia. You don’t just file for your publication. You must learn to record a video, to blog, to post on Facebook and Twitter.

Journalists also need a quality often devalued in an age when cable news and bloggers push for more opinion, more attitude – and that quality is humility. You can’t be a good reporter unless you ask questions and genuinely listen to the answers because you don’t assume you know the answer. Asking questions requires humility.

There’s another citizen role, and the International Center for Journalists plays it by having professional journalists mentor aspiring journalists all over the world. Mentoring is important.

But so is sponsorship, and by that I mean citizens – maybe a publisher, maybe an owner, maybe a producer or editor – who takes the young journalist under his or her wing and is engaged in advancing their career, not just honing their skills. Notice how the outgoing CEO of IBM chose his successor, a woman. He didn’t just mentor her with private talks. He sponsored her, making sure she moved into management positions that would test her, inviting her to speak at key corporate functions, asking a long-time female CEO of another company to regularly meet with and coach her.

I often liken what we do as journalists to visiting other planets, where we are exposed to different languages and cultures. Recently, I spent three years reporting a book from Planet Google. I tried to understand how a disruptive digital company and its engineers thought, and I also tried to parse how traditional media responded to the digital wave. I won’t bore you with the many lessons I came away with. But I will share one major take-away. I came to think there are two types of people: Those who lean back, and those who lean forward. Those who lean back – as too many who work in traditional media did – tend to blame companies like Google or Apple or Amazon for ruining their business. Burdened by the onslaught of digital challenges, they tended to freeze, to slip into pessimism, to view challenges are problems, to try and ignore the digital wave – until it crashed into them. By contrast, the person who leans forward tends to be an optimist, believes in being pro-active, views challenges as opportunities.

There are reasons many other parts of the world think they can lean back and ignore the digital wave. In Afghanistan, where I reported a media story last year, the 'new' media is really 'old' media – radio and television. With scarce electricity, and eighty percent illiteracy, neither online news nor newspapers pose much of a challenge. Outside of the United States and even in parts of Western Europe, newspapers still thrive. Rather than declining, readership grows. But those who lean back and ignore the rising digital wave will soon collide with it. In Africa, where I reported a media story earlier this year, inexpensive mobile phones have diminished 'old' media. It is as certain as a sunrise that the audience and advertising for newspapers and magazines, for television and radio networks and stations, will decline as technology grants citizens more news and information choices. This may not occur next year, or in five years. But it will, and we need prepare.

I can stand before you this evening and lean back, offering multiple reasons to be pessimistic. I could total up the media companies that have – and will – go bust; the lost journalistic jobs; the fact that so much journalism is superficial and gossipy, and lament how the digital world’s ability to measure what our readers or viewers like will compel editors to lean on us to produce more fluff.

I’d rather stand before you and lean forward. Attending a dinner like this, how could you not be optimistic when you see journalists who believe that what they do is a calling, who risked their lives and livelihoods to report. How can we not be awed by your honoree who spent ten years to prove that genocide occurred in Cambodia. Tonight’s honorees, like many of the journalists in this hall, understand that readers and viewers need them as 'intelligent agents' to report on the real world, not the world of make-believe press releases and spin.

We need believe the public will pay for the content we produce. It is worth celebrating that the New York Times, which spends an astonishing seven million dollars a year to cover two war zones – Iraq and Afghanistan – this past spring put up a pay wall and already three hundred and twenty five thousand people are paying for the digital edition.

Finally, let me end where I began, with Andy Grove. Three years after I interviewed him in Dallas, I interviewed Grove at the World Economic Forum In Davos. I recited for him what he had said in Dallas, and asked if he still held the same views.

'No,' he said. 'I was totally wrong. I didn’t understand the importance of serendipity. How would I have learned about the atrocities of Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia? I needed an ‘intelligent agent’ to keep me informed about news I could not anticipate. And I needed an ‘intelligent agent’ because there is a blizzard of too much information on the Internet, and I need them to sort out what is, and is not, important.'

That’s as optimistic a statement about our role as I can end with.

Thank you."