University News

Alum panel discusses future of journalism

Wall Street Journal, NPR reporters trace careers back to U.’s history department

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2014

Disruptions to journalism’s business model and media’s heightened polarization present challenges and potential conflicts of interest for the industry, two alum media veterans said at a panel Saturday.

Mark Maremont ’80 P’11, senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, and Mara Liasson ’77, political commentator for National Public Radio and contributor to Fox News Channel, spoke of their journalism careers and answered questions about current industry dynamics and future of journalism at a forum entitled “The Role of Media in Shaping — and Reflecting — Culture and Society.”

The forum was one of several hosted as part of the University’s 250th anniversary fall celebration.

Both history concentrators, Liasson and Maremont arrived at journalism in similar ways. Liasson’s “straight shot” of a career began with a paper she wrote for a class on early 20th-century American radicals, she said. An art dealer from Boston read her article and hired her to write the text of an art catalog. From there she wrote for the Vineyard Gazette, a weekly based in Martha’s Vineyard, and went on to work at NPR, where she covered Congress, President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and his subsequent presidency, became a national political correspondent and is now in White House rotation again.

Maremont’s journalism interest sprouted from his thesis about the Chicago Seven trial, on which a faculty member commented, “This is very journalistic. Have you considered becoming a journalist?” Maremont said he then went home to Chicago and began freelancing for a free weekly while working a business job. He subsequently attended Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and held a series of journalism jobs, eventually landing at the Journal as an editor.

“There’s no doubt that print media has been incredibly challenged,” Maremont said. The role of journalists has changed from the “golden days” when papers could not be printed fast enough, he said. Journalists’ roles as “watchdogs” have diminished due to cutbacks, a lack of resources and high demand for free online news that can be produced cheaply — all of which compromise their ability to do expensive and time-intensive investigative reporting.

As a result, journalism has gravitated more toward commentary and away from factual reporting, which has yielded lower barriers of entry to the field, Maremont said.

“There’s no doubt the media environment is hyper-partisan like everything is today,” Liasson said. Audiences choose to tune in to different sources to receive certain news, and even if the content providers try to be balanced, media consumers see them as liberal or conservative, she said. “There is a self-perpetuating Tower of Babel.”

With the influx of billionaires buying news organizations, “choose your billionaire carefully,” Maremont said. As “wealthy and influential people bring their biases to the party, … you have to decide whether or not you, as a journalist, want to live with that or not,” he said.

As for the recent purchase of the Washington Post by Jeffrey Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com, “we’re waiting” for an organizational shake-up, but it has yet to materialize, Liasson said.

Liasson and Maremont also expressed concern over the younger generation’s news consumption habits. “I am scared to death,” Liasson said. “An uninformed generation is a really scary thing.” While millennials are ripe with information about Miley Cyrus, even NPR interns don’t seem to know names of politicians, she added.

Though recent changes in journalism have been widely perceived as detrimental, some can be seen as positive, Maremont said. Young data miners can find interesting trends that spur stories, and multimedia pieces are becoming more common.

“Big data is relatively accessible,” Liasson added.

“Good citizen journalism” has flowered in this new media environment, Maremont said. While it is expensive to do “good journalism,” Internet sensations — like the video of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment during the 2012 presidential campaign — can provide news coverage in the absence of professional reporting.

Both journalism veterans cautioned students who have an interest in a career in the industry. Maremont noted that young people with multimedia and technical skills are finding some success. But industry salaries are not promising, and aspiring journalists must be able to manage a personal brand.

“Like almost all important professions in society, … journalism is now becoming pink-collar,” Liasson said. It will be harder for those who need to be the “sole bread-winner” to provide, she said.

The ways in which changing business models, the use of Twitter and the possibility of politically aligned news sources will shift the media landscape are all uncertain, Maremont said.