Newspapers will survive and journalists will continue to hold those in power accountable for the foreseeable future, one of the nation’s leading editors said Tuesday.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that accountability journalism is going to survive,” said Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor and current vice president at large for The Washington Post. “It will be a rough ride, though.”
Downie, who started as a reporter in high school, addressed 35 high school journalism teachers from across the nation at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he described changes in the media landscape and the implications for the industry and student journalists.
“It’s why the founding fathers put freedom of the press in the First Amendment,” Downie said. “It’s an American tradition.”
The Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes during Downie’s 17-year tenure as top editor, many of them for investigations that turned up problems such as poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
While watchdog journalism and independent reporting now take on many forms, Downie said print newspapers will be around as long as he is alive and not in danger of becoming extinct as some fear.
“In the long run, what matters is maintaining readership and finding a way to pay for it,” Downie said.
Downie said The Washington Post, which once boasted a staff of 1,200 and now employs approximately 800 was “fat and happy” during economically stable times. However, the paper now supplements traditional print with online multimedia experiences, collaborates with news organizations and uses social networking to gather and disseminate news.
“I can’t foresee technological breakthroughs replacing print newspapers,” Downie said. “To succeed, newspapers must be a part of a multimedia strategy. We are hiring really good journalists, but we are really hiring multimedia journalists. That is the real opportunity for young journalists. They need to be equipped to do those things.”
Nevertheless, changes in the media industry have not come without costs. From the loss of ad revenue to the Internet revolution and creation of fragmented audiences, Downie said the collapse of the old economic model has affected diversity in the newsroom, coverage and distribution, particularly in start-up news organizations.
“This is a very serious issue,” Downie said. “I’m concerned that our eyes are off the ball because everybody is struggling to survive. Mass media should be for mass audiences and should cover everybody.”
Looking back on his 44 year career, Downie added that as a student journalist he wish he had known “everything.”
“I was completely unprepared for the digital age, and we suffered for it,” Downie said.
He added the necessity of teaching students enduring journalistic values and news literacy, through the lens of multimedia experience.
To support the survival of school publications and cultivate student journalists, Downie encouraged teachers to move publications online, seek community support and invite local journalists to mentor students.
“We’re preparing them for a brave new world,” Downie said. “Journalism is a calling. This is not for the faint hearted.”