It may seem counter-intuitive considering the rapid decline of newspapers, but New York Times columnist Dave Leonhard told UC-Riverside students that “In terms of high-quality, ambitious journalism, we are living in a golden age right now.”
Leonhard made that comment, and others, on Feb. 27 as he gave the 51st Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture on Feb. 27 at the UC Riverside Extension Center, 1200 University Ave, Riverside, CA 92507.
This represented an unusual take as newspapers continue to cut staff, readership is declining, and the public’s mistrust of the media has grown.
Leonhardt acknowledged the difficulties the industry is facing but said there are also reasons to be optimistic in his talk titled “Why today’s media is both strong and weak.”
“In terms of high-quality, ambitious journalism, we are living in a golden age right now,” Leonhardt said.
New York Times journalists are using interactive maps, graphics, photo essays, videos, podcasts and other digital tools that readers are responding to with enthusiasm, he said. He cited as an example an interactive graph he produced on the history of U.S. taxes on the very wealthy that ended up getting 7.7 million views.
“There is no way I could have written any series of paragraphs that would be so elegant that 8 million people would have looked at it online,” he said.
The Times has seen the results of its approach pay off, noting the paper now has 4.4 million digital subscribers and 5.1 million total subscribers. Other national publications like the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have also seen success, Leonhardt said.
Social media has also allowed news consumers to hold journalists more accountable, he said. Readers now feel empowered to directly communicate with reporters and “hash out questions and disagreements in real time.”
He recalled how in 1994 as a summer intern for the Washington Post he made an embarrassing mistake, misspelling former publisher Katharine Graham’s name. It was picked up a week later in a weekly publication that made fun of the error. Today, it would have been mocked instantly on social media, corrected online, and never printed, he said.
Leonhardt said the journalism industry’s biggest crisis is taking place at the local level, where newspaper staffing has dropped 50% from its peak, many publications are closing, and local government and community stories are going uncovered as a result.
“The decline in local journalism is a crisis for our democracy,” he said.
Another worrisome trend is the growing public mistrust toward institutions like the media, a sentiment Leonhardt attributes to stagnating living standards, with many Americans no longer believing they will have a better life than their parents.
Finally, the amount of disinformation online and the ability to use technology to manipulate information through fake videos or memes is unlike other eras, Leonhardt said.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter need to take greater responsibility to remove such content, he said.
Some may wonder why journalism isn’t different than other businesses and shouldn’t just fade away like the horse-and-buggy industry, Leonhardt noted. “The reason journalism is more important than other businesses is it is, at root, in the business of educating citizens to live better lives and participate in democracy,” he said.
The Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture Series was established in 1966 by Howard H. “Tim” Hays Jr., then-editor of The Press-Enterprise, in cooperation with UC Riverside. His son, Tom Hays, created an endowment fund to ensure the lecture’s tradition lived on after his father’s death in 2011.
The intent of the lecture series is to bring to Riverside notable journalists to address important topics.