American Forum Confirms Students’ Fears

Hey BTA Readers,

Below is an article I did for class about the American Forum event we had on campus about the future of Journalism, and, in particular, the role of Washington Watchdogs.

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American University’s American Forum on Feb. 17 revealed that the number of papers with Washington Bureaus has declined by half since 1985, confirming some of Journalism students’ major concerns: the industry is changing rapidly.

The forum, “Washington Watchdogs: An Endangered Species?” was co-sponsored by AU’s School of Communication and WAMU 88.5 FM and was moderated by Wendell Cochran, a School of Communications professor at AU and focused on the decline of journalists covering the Washington, D.C. and government beat today. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and panelist Tyler Marshall revealed three major finds of a new study on the state of these Washington Watchdogs.

He said the study, “The New Washington Press Corps”, found a surprising increase in the size of “niche media”, or magazines newspapers and special interest magazines with a presence in Washington, and also an increase in the number of foreign correspondents registered at the Foreign Press Center in D.C.

Marshall said the study also found a decreased amount of staff in Washington offices for the mainstream media, and a reversal of the migration of bylines.

Originally, journalists started out in “niche” publications and aspired to write for big name papers. “Today, more journalists aspire to join niche publications, not the daily papers,” Marshall said.

Lauren Linhard, a sophomore at AU majoring in Print Journalism, watched the forum on C-Span, where it was broadcast live, and can clearly see the appeal of “niche” media to those just entering the journalism field.. “It gives you the opportunity to write more feature stories about topics you’re interested in,” she said. “In newspapers, you just kind of have to take whatever beat is open and available.” Linhard herself aspires to become part of the niche media . “I want to create my own magazine someday,” she says.

Mark Whitaker, the chief of NBC News, said that “audiences have been declining for news coming out of D.C.,” with the exception of 2008’s much-hyped presidential election. “The use of internet to find that information is up,” adding, “Readers can do some reporting themselves” with sites like Twitter, a micro-blogging site used for social networking.

Suzanne Struglinski, senior editor of Provider magazine, said that a major cause of the decrease in the so-called “watchdogs” was that “individual cities and towns just don’t pay as much attention to D.C. and D.C. news.”

Linhard can see firsthand the lack of attention being paid to D.C. in her hometown local news station, which originates in Baltimore. “It always focuses on local events – especially crimes,” she said. “I rarely hear anything about the day’s happenings in Congress unless it’s something really major.”

Struglinski said a huge reason for the decline in Washington journalists is that states are sending fewer reporters to function as the “Washington Watchdogs” and serve as chaperones.

“We can’t let those people [politicians] run around without a chaperone,” Cochran added jokingly.

Wittstock agreed. “Washington journalists should be that person with a notebook in the hallway,” she said. Struglinski added, “Capturing those moments and asking questions on behalf of those who can’t is what it’s all about. A webcast or phoning in a story is not the same.”

A student questioner from the audience asked if the decline of Washington correspondents could be partially blamed on the rising popularity of internet . “Yes – but we have ourselves to blame,” Marshall responded. “We were giving the information away for free, depending only on ads for revenue. We need other ways for the business to be translated.”

Melinda Wittstock, founder and CEO of Capitol News Connection, said that another key thing is that newspapers are losing money, and needed to find an economic model that suited them. “We started off giving away the information for free,” she said.

Whitaker noted the need to be careful about the content that is out on the internet now, and not to mistake certain prepackaged videos from interest groups as news. “We need to make sure people can tell the difference,” he said.

One student asked whether the fast-paced reporting in “real-time” is changing the integrity of news.

“What’s better- fast or correct?”, Struglinski responded.

Wittstock added, “stories often evolve – there needs to be room for all of it.”

Linhard agrees with Struglinski and Wittstock. “Although the immediacy of digital media and the recent change to fast-paced reporting allows viewers to judge for themselves what is going on,” she says, “investigative journalism and digging beneath the surface is just as, if not more, important.”

To close, panelists expressed their hopes for the future of journalism. “There’s certainly going to be more and more room for entrepreneurship,” Whitaker said.

Journalism students may question their choices in a business that is shrinking, but Wittstock said she loved her job because “every day was different,” and Struglinski added that she enjoys having a “front seat to history.”

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About beckawall

AU Alumni, feminist, master of peanut butter brownies. Lover of Teddy Roosevelt, politics, analyzing popular culture, and general nerdery.

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