Renowned journalist and George Washington University professor Steve Roberts was kind enough to speak with me today about how journalism has changed in recent years with the advent of new media technologies.
Roberts spent 25 years as a reporter with the Washington bureau of the New York Times. He is also a frequent contributor to radio and television news, appearing on National Public Radio, ABC Radio, CNN and many Washington-area broadcasts, as well as writing a weekly nationally syndicated column with his wife Cokie. He currently teaches journalism and political communications for the GWU School of Media and Public Affairs.
Roberts calls the evolution of citizen journalism the biggest change to mainstream media since he began his career, noting that the broadcast of cell-phone footage of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was a world-wide news story entirely begun as two non-journalists capturing footage on their camera phones.
In regards to the now nonexistent news cycle, Roberts points out that new media and the world of instant news has impacted news consumption in three distinct ways:
- Time – You no longer need to be ready to turn on the TV for news each night; news is now mobile and accessible 24 hours a day.
- Place – You no longer need to be home to get the paper or see the television in order to know what’s going on in the world.
- Space – Reporters are no longer constrained by a limited number of column inches. As he puts it, “The Internet is limitless.”
This is where Roberts points out an interesting phenomenon. At the same time that news has become more mobile and digestible, compressed, and served up in bite-sized portions on platforms like Twitter and in cell-phone instant news updates, it is also expanding. The Internet has infinite space to store information, and you can find thousands of words on any topic–without the editing filter of mainstream media.
What about print media? I question if Roberts would agree with many who are arguing that print media is dead. In a word? No.
“I still have deep and abiding affection for information that rubs off on your hands,” he chuckles, pointing out that while the business models for print media has absolutely been forced to evolve, the content provided is just as valuable as ever. He notes the many changes that print media is making to adjust with the times, designing websites that will work on mobile Internet devices and producing online-only content.
As a GW professor, Roberts pioneered a new media class called “The New News Business” when I was a student there in 2000. Today, there are four different classes dealing with new media, including one seeking to inform students about convergence–how “to market
Politically speaking, Roberts argues that presidential campaigns all are forced to have instant-response teams ready to respond within minutes to any of their rivals’ activities. Mentioning the popular 1993 documentary “The War Room,” which followed the activities of Bill Clinton’s response team, he points out that current efforts are more like “the War Room on steroids,” overloading reporters with near-constant information and forcing them to file stories 24 hours a day.
“What a lot of news organizations have done..is create almost two teams of reporters to cover campaigns,” he says. “You have the team that updates the website, and then you have the team that sits back and takes a couple of extra hours and does the analysis piece for the first edition of the news paper…If you have only one reporter who is increasing pressure to file virtually continuously, you lose [quality].”
Quality writing. The general downturn in writing skills is something we cover here at Media Bullseye. Roberts argues that in most professions in communications (not just journalism), “writing skills are at an absolute premium.” Being a good writer is the “single most valuable skill” a student can acquire. I could not have said it better, and could not agree more.