Great minds think

Stephen Engelberg

Managing Editor, ProPublica

Engelberg previously served as managing editor for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Before joining The Oregonian, he worked for The New York Times for 18 years, including stints in Washington, D.C., and Warsaw, Poland, as well as in New York.

Q: What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “future of journalism?”

We have had a solid three to five years of talking about this. We've gone through a kind of period of anger and of denial and now perhaps a sort of realism. We certainly had a long period of thinking that the media, in its previous form, would not survive and that democracy would suffer for that. There was a lot of reason to say some of those things. We by no means have a solution at this point, but I feel like we are on the verge of beginning to navigate a transition into a different kind of media landscape. And in that new world there will be some business models and solutions that actually work. I am more optimistic than pessimistic, although one could see plenty of reasons for continuing to be pessimistic.

The existing models of paid subscription print supplemented with advertising continue to be under enormous stress and it's not going to get better. So in that regard we're still facing an uncertain future. On the other hand, the shakeout is continuing and I see signs that in the next period we're going to see people charge for content, which is the only way out. I think we will look back on this notion that information has to be free as a very silly kind of moment in the history of journalism. Of course we're going to charge for what we do. That is what every other business does. How else would you do it? How we're going to do that remains unclear. But at the end of the day, there is no other answer. People want information, people want exclusive information, people want to be informed - and for that privilege, you're going to have to pay people to do the work. And in order to do that, you're going to have to charge other people.

There has been a lot of conversation about this, a lot of handwringing, and I'm not saying it's unjustified. But I'm seeing the conversation move beyond the handwringing and despair, and into the direction of: What are some solutions? How are we going to get out of this?

Q: That said, what are your concerns?

Once we get through this transition time, there are real concerns we should all have. The reason ProPublica exists is because of the possibility that the free market, and its invisible hand, will not address the journalistic needs of the country. Particularly, as a democracy, we worry about what happens locally. I think the Bell, Calif., story is a cautionary tale. If we don't have a vibrant and aggressive statehouse press and in every town and city that's collecting taxpayer money, the chances of abuse clearly rise. Public entities that aren't watched are more likely to abuse. There's no question about that. There are fewer watchdogs today. There's no question about that. We have lost tens of thousands of journalistic jobs in the United States. Even if places were overstaffed and even if some of the things they did did not qualify as watchdog or accountability journalism, there is no question valuable parts of our democracy have been lost. And it's not clear how, or if, we will replace those things. It's not that what we had before was perfect. But, there have been real losses. That worries me. There are just lots of places that aren't being watched anywhere near as carefully as they once were.

Q: Any aspects of traditional journalism that you miss?

I long ago came to enjoy a piece of journalism on the Web but for me that daily print newspaper in your hands is also something I quite enjoy. But I have to say the freedom that new media allows you and the ability to amend things as you go along are pretty darn hard to beat.

Q: Thoughts on participatory journalism, citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing?

It can work in terms of collecting information but I think producing journalism is a little more complicated than that. We have had success in sending out inquiries for information from our reporting network of several thousand people where we try to track stimulus funds, for instance. That has worked out great. When we ask for something specific, it works out great. When you act as sort of a city editor and give everyone an assignment, it works. But we have found that when we put out a more general kind of call, we get pretty minimal response.

Q: Beyond the drastic reductions in local and statehouse reporting, what else worries you about the new media and journalism landscape?

There is a worry out there that one has to pay attention to. The Web allows the reader to customize what they read. And that's a great thing. It means you can get incredible depth in particular areas. But it also allows you to, in essence, create a news environment in which you can literally never have to read anything that doesn't agree with what you think. So the fragmentation of the audience into camps of people whose reality is bounded by what may be pretty partisan sources -- that worries me. You kind of want to hope that we may disagree with how to address what's wrong in our society, but would be able to agree on facts, or even what is a fact. And yet, like in the healthcare debate, people were persuaded that the Obama Administration, the government of the United States, the Congress, were creating these death panels. This was something that did not exist. And that didn't seem to matter to a decent percentage of Americans. There's a decent percentage of Americans who believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Obviously, to the extent the audience begins to shut its ears to evidence journalists might present because it doesn't conform with your view of things - that's worrisome.

Q: How do you stack-rank the causes of journalism's instability?

It's interesting. There's a sense we used to have when I was working for a good regional newspaper, The Oregonian, that we were quite willing and ready to blame ourselves and to have the sense that there was kind of a fundamental divide between one audience, which wanted one kind of news or product, and ourselves, and we wanted another kind of news. That we were really out of touch with the audience. That circulation was dropping because we simply weren't delivering news people wanted to read.

What's interesting is that surveys today show that between print and online people read more news today than they did five years ago. People's interest in news is actually rising.

It's not so much that newspapers didn't serve their readers, though that was clearly part of it. But what we've faced is a fundamental crisis of the finance part, of the business model. Newspapers tended to draw their money from classified advertising. With the invasion of the Internet, that's gone. Craigslist, one can blame it, but the fact is, if Craig Newmark didn't exist, somebody else would have done it. Truthfully, the minute you could get stuff for free on the Internet in terms of advertising or at very low cost, the advantage that newspapers had to deliver a large audience, that wasn't going to happen anymore. And the minute that started happening, newspapers like The Oregonian were losing 50 percent of their annual revenue. Fifty percent. That's pretty devastating. Then, the rest of advertising is heading towards the Internet because display advertising is not as an efficient way of reaching people as advertising on the Web. So once the advertising base was undercut you had this business crisis. That has driven everything else. Not a cyclical shift, but a fundamental shift in how advertising is bought and where the money is coming from. That, as much as anything, or more than anything, is at the root of this. If you solve that, you go a long way towards solving the rest of the problem. Which isn't to say we don't need to change. There's a large audience now that wants to read online rather than in print. But again, they want to read. It's not as if they don't want to read. They just don't want a print newspaper delivered 12 hours late to their home. They have updated information they carry around with them. That is something news organizations are quite capable of delivering.

The issue isn't they don't want news. They don't want news in the form it was previously delivered.

Spring 2011

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