Journalism is in a fight for its life. Why this Pulitzer Prize winner has hope.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson lays out the unprecedented challenges facing news media.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson posed question and missive for a packed congregation of journalists at the Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon Dinner on April 22.
“How do you have a democracy if you don’t have a common chronicle of events and a common encyclopedia of facts?” he asked. “Our enterprise, the mission of journalism, has to survive if we’re going to survive as a nation and a democracy.”
Robinson, the 2022 Denver Press Club Damon Runyon Award winner, has had a storied career in politics, foreign correspondence and opinion-writing. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his lauded coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign and appears regularly on television as a news commentator.
In his Denver Press Club address, he laid out three crises that journalists face today.
Beleaguered business model
The advent of the internet and rise of the 24-hour news cycle forced newsrooms to overhaul their business models, to varying degrees of success.
“With the dawn of the internet, there really wasn’t a moneymaking strategy for news — the focus was just to get it out there on this new platform,” said Chris Jennings, Ed.D., professor and chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Journalism and Media Production, who was among a group of journalism faculty members who attended the event.
“Now, when you monetize (the news) and put it behind paywalls, it becomes less accessible to where only privileged folks have access to reliable content,” Jennings added.
Paired with the public’s expectation of access to no-cost content, the loss of more reliable subscription revenue has created space for venture firms to swoop in, dismantle and self-off newsroom assets, in some cases undermining ethics-first editorial decision-making, Robinson said.
The inability to adapt to the changing marketplace has led to the decimation of many newsrooms, with major metropolitan areas heading toward a likely future without a newspaper serving their regions, Robinson added.
Jennings also noted that these effects are localized and differ by market, pointing to grassroots emergence of outlets such as the Colorado Sun and COLab as alternatives.
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Robinson pointed to political polarization and asymmetry as the second crisis. The current political climate challenges the pursuit of nonbias, which has long been journalism’s lodestar.
“How do we maintain our objectivity at a time when there’s no symmetry in the way (our political) parties behave?” Robinson asked. “If we play it down the middle between truth and a lie, we’re not being honest.”
The 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide equal airtime for controversial and competing perspectives, Jennings said, set the stage for this landscape.
Kenn Bisio, MFA, retired MSU Denver professor of Photojournalism who was also in attendance, echoed the challenge and necessity of adhering to a journalistic code of ethics.
“I would tell my students, ‘You’re not a Democrat; you’re not a Republican; you’re not Catholic or Protestant or gay or straight — you’re a journalist, and you need to stay on that thin line,’” Bisio said. “But that line is just getting thinner and thinner, where someone can just look at a photograph and declare it’s fake news, and that’s an accepted reality.”
This sentiment takes on more gravity at a time when the Russian media has decried images of atrocities in Ukraine as false.
“That’s what makes the work of (journalists) holy work,” Bisio added. “Because if they weren’t out there doing it, who would be?”
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The rise of disinformation
A flagging business model and bifurcated realities set the stage for what Robinson described as the third and “perhaps toughest of all” crisis: disinformation.
“We are competing against those who don’t play by our rules,” Robinson said. “Sensationalist (disinformation) is more viral than the boring, everyday truth.”
Social media plays a key role: Algorithmic prioritization delivers media specifically engineered for engagement rather than accuracy or timeliness, Jennings noted.
MSU Denver journalism student Yzeppa Macias, recipient of the Damon Runyon Scholarship, sees the need for a ground-level approach to combating disinformation, established one person at a time.
“You have to be genuinely interested in connecting with people and their stories — that’s how you build trust,” she said. “And you have to ask the questions — keep digging and exploring every avenue available.”
Macias attributed her time at MSU Denver and support from faculty advisor Kip Wotkyns, MBA, as integral to her path, which will lead her to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in fall.
Robinson, who met with Macias and other scholarship recipients, reinforced the long-road tenacity needed to weather “the battlements of truth, justice and the American Way,” as well as the promise held by the next generation of torch-bearers.
“It really gives me hope,” he said. “Hope for the future of journalism and, by extension, the future of our democracy.”