A Glimmer of Hope
International Editor: Tom Redburn '72: "It is no surprise to anybody that this business is changing."
By Tom Redburn '73
Editor's Note: This is an online exclusive addition to our series in which Pomona
journalists discuss the future of the news. In this installment,
Tom Redburn '72, managing editor of the
International Herald Tribune, looks at the importance of "editing" the news and how new technological advances offer newspapers a glimmer of hope.
Not long ago, a friend of mine who lives in New York sent me an email from the West African country of Guinea, where he was visiting his daughter. The message started by talking about how much he enjoyed reading the International Herald Tribune, the newspaper where I work, while on his trip and how he felt connected to the rest of the world while in one of the more remote corners of it.
Shortly thereafter, at a conference in Switzerland, I was talking with an economist for a Wall Street bank (one of the few still standing) who works in Hong Kong. He told me how much he depended on the IHT and the Financial Times--which, like the Trib, is printed and distributed around the world--as his two favorite sources of information.
Well, sure, you say, what do you expect? They were just telling me what I wanted to hear. But call me crazy, consider me hopelessly out of date, I think there’s more to it than that. I think they were saying just how important daily newspapers still are, particularly good newspapers that seriously attempt, despite all their flaws, to understand and explain, as it is happening, what is going on in the world, in the nation, in a community, and in the ways our lives are changing from day to day, year to year.
That’s why, no matter how many metropolitan newspapers go out of business and no matter what happens over the next few years as the media world migrates further onto the Web and other digital platforms, I’m convinced that there will be great demand and a willingness to pay for what good newspapers do. And what is that, exactly?
We edit. We select from the stories painstakingly gathered by our reporters; the images captured by our photographers; and the masses of information available to us from other sources what we think our readers should read, and package it in a way that conveys what we think is most important and most interesting. It’s a terribly arrogant thing to do.
There’s a sort-of-famous description of an editor (sort-of-famous in the world of journalism, anyway) by the largely forgotten turn-of-the-20th-century writer and lecturer Elbert Hubbard, who was also a correspondent for the Hearst chain of newspapers.
An editor, Hubbard said, is a person employed by a newspaper whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff--and then to print the chaff.
Hubbard knew my business well. Along with the wheat (reporting on matters of war and peace, exposes of abuse by those in power, and the like), we also publish a lot of chaff—accounts of sports events, fashion coverage, entertainment news, etc.—because our readers are genuinely interested in it (check out the most emailed list at NYT.com most days), and yes, because it helps sell the advertising that largely pays the bills.
It is no surprise to anybody that this business is changing.
Newspapers have evolved over centuries and will continue to evolve long after they are no longer printed in ink on paper. The IHT is owned by The New York Times and my boss, Bill Keller ’70, the executive editor of The Times, can offer far more insight than I can into the editorial and economic challenges all forms of journalism face in the digital age.
But however the business changes, I think the editing of “newspapers” and even much of the visual language that has emerged over the years—the form of the front page; similar material gathered together in sections or groups of pages; words organized into coherent pieces mixed with photos and graphic information; the size and placement of headlines to hook the reader and convey the editors’ judgment of each article’s essence and importance—will continue in a more or less recognizable form. I certainly hope so.
Plenty of other forms are emerging. Blogs, millions of them produced individually or by small groups of like-minded people for like-minded readers, are just one of the more interesting innovations of our time. But there is still something to be said for the experience of reading a newspaper. Nowhere else is a greater effort made to not just allow readers to discover stuff they didn’t know, but also to allow them to stumble across stuff they didn’t know they wanted to know.
Forgive me if I get on my high horse, but that’s important not just to journalists but to the functioning of our democratic society itself. A former colleague of mine, Michael Oreskes, put it this way in a speech:
“We as journalists must build communities that are broad and not just deep. Where people encounter people not like them, with different views, different backgrounds, different politics and interests. Democracy does not function well unless citizens are exposed to views and opinions and people they did not want to hear from or did not even know about.’’
The Internet, as a source of information, pushes in the other direction. General news sources like The New York Times or the BBC are certainly succeeding in cyberspace, but because the Internet offers so much, most people focus on what they are already interested in, or they rely on Google to find something they are specifically searching for. The technology tends to divide us rather than unite us.
But new forms of digital technology are emerging. Most of you are familiar with the Kindle, Amazon’s book reading tablet. Coming soon are other platforms that will allow viewers to carry with them a tablet that more closely duplicates the look and feel of a contemporary newspaper, with the added advantage of offering frequent updates with fresh information.
Figuring out how to turn this exciting new technology into a successful business won’t be easy. Greater minds than mine are spending a lot of time thinking about that right now.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if the advance of technology, paradoxically, ends up helping preserve rather than destroying the form of journalism to which I’ve devoted my life.