Aspen Institute presentation looks at the future of news in the era of Trump and technological change
IF YOU GO
What: “The Future of News,” a presentation by David Leonhardt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist for the New York Times
When: Tuesday 6 p.m.
Where: Greenwald Pavilion
Tickets are for sale at http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Criticism of media by presidential administrations is nothing new, but President Donald Trump has taken it to a new level by branding some news organizations an “unpatriotic enemy,” according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.
David Leonhardt will talk Tuesday at the Aspen Institute about the attacks the media faces from its many critics, Trump tops among them, and the challenges and opportunities that news organization face from new technology. His presentation, “The Future of News,” is part of the McCloskey Speaker Series.
Leonhardt, now an op-ed writer, was an editor at The New York Times during the Obama administration. He said the Times’ staff regularly fielded complaints from Obama’s team ranging from the tone of headlines to allegations that their stories would risk national security.
“It’s not as though the relationship between the media and past administrations was friendly. It was often quite tense,” Leonhardt said. “This is still different. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, has said, ‘It is an emergency when the president is calling journalists the enemy of the people.’”
Leonhardt said Trump has resisted transparency and taken an unprecedented approach with media he doesn’t like.
“It appears to be an effort in which he wants to set himself and his administration up as the only reliable source of information, which is obviously not how a democracy should work,” he said.
The credibility of some media has taken a hit during the Trump campaign and presidency among a portion of the American public, he acknowledged. But that credibility gap must be viewed in the bigger picture. The credibility of “virtually every other major American institution” is also low, Leonhardt said. That includes Congress, organized religion, big business and organized labor.
Leonhardt believes each institution has specific reasons for lack of credibility, but there also are common factors.
“I believe those common forces are related to stagnation of living standards for a very large portion of this country,” he said. “People have not seen their living standards go up for a couple of decades now, and when your living standards aren’t going up, when you’re not living better than what your parents did, it’s hard to have a lot of trust in major societal institutions because society isn’t serving you very well.”
The “tricky question,” he said, is how to restore trust, including trust in the media.
External criticism isn’t the only challenge for newspapers. Old ways of doing business no longer cut it in the digital age.
Leonhardt led a special team at The New York Times that mapped out a vision for what the esteemed publication must do to survive and thrive. It’s a topic that he’s thought long and hard about, and he clearly has definitive positions that might make some of his industry colleagues squirm.
“Our job is to get people information and give them insight and help them understand the world,” Leonhardt said. “If you think about what are the best tools to understand the world today, one of those tools is the written word, one of those tools are data visualization and graphics, one is photography, one is video, one is audio.
“We are way too shifted toward the tools that we had in the era of a print newspaper, which is to say the written word and photography,” he continued.
Some of the approaches that resonate with readers are the same as they’ve been for years — in-depth stories and photo essays. But some approaches are different — such as podcasts, “gorgeous and intelligent maps,” and interactive maps that allow a reader to drill down to what’s happening in their county on a particular topic.
Leonhardt was the founding editor of The Upshot at The New York Times, a popular feature that employs enterprising ways to expand readers’ knowledge of topics.
For The New York Times, it’s important to hire staff members with the tools for broader storytelling. Local newspapers, as opposed to national ones, might not have the same resources to devote to expanded storytelling.
“Community newspapers have a much bigger challenge than national newspapers,” he said. “The Times now has multiple-million people paying for our product, many of them for only digital access, which gives us the resources to hire videographers and photographers and data-visualization people.”
The trick for local media is to find a way to support an economic base. But media, large and small, also face the same root issue.
“What the similarity is, whatever size of staff an organization is able to have, it’s important not to be beholden to the old forms because readers are not beholden to the old forms,” Leonhardt said. “Readers are now used to reading information on their phone, so the similarity is most local newspapers should be asking themselves, ‘How can we make our report more visual?’
“The larger point is we’re living in a world in which information is increasingly visual and local newspapers also should be thinking about how to react to that because their readers expect it and if they don’t deliver it, ultimately readers will go elsewhere.”
Despite the external criticism and industry challenges, Leonhardt said he is “deeply optimistic” about the future of newspapers and media in general.
There are successful business models in the media world, including The New York Times.
“We are asking our readers to pay for journalism and they’re doing it in enormous numbers,” he said.
Leonhardt said the evidence shows that people are hungrier than ever for information about the world around them.
“It makes me think we’re going to have a thriving media going forward even if it’s not the media we have today,” he said.
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