Conventional wisdom places the “golden age” of journalism in the inkid-twentieth century, somewhere between Edward R. Murrow filing dispatches from war-torn Europe and Walter Cronkite delivering the nightly news in authoritative baritone. But John Nichols says conventional wisdom has it all wrong.
“I hated the last 125 years,” Nichols told participants at the “Creating and Consuming Media for a Better Future” event. “We created the one-newspaper town with three television networks, and then we said that those institutions shouldn’t have a point of view. We said they should speak to everybody. That was always a fantasy.”
On Oct. 13 at the George S. Turnbull Portland Center, Nichols—The Nation’s Washington correspondent and co-author of The Death and Life of American Journalism—joined six other national and local journalists on stage to kick-start a conversation about the future of independent media hosted by the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) and The Nation magazine.
Nichols’ prediction: the 20th-century model of “objective journalism” will give way to something distinctly more 18th-century— think Thomas Paine, he says.
“People today don’t particularly want drab journalism,” Nichols says. “They want a point of view. They want someone to say, ‘Hey, I see some stuff happening here, I’m going to tell you about it, and I’m going to tell you what I think ought to happen about it.”
Incidentally, the future Nichols envisions might look a lot like his fellow panelist Donovan Smith, a reporter for The Skanner in Portland. On the side of his reporting gig, Smith also works as creative director for the clothing line Ignorant/Reflections, where he designs clothing (like the “Gentrification is Weird” T-shirt he’s wearing) that’s meant to spark critical conversation about Portland culture. Smith says he walks a fine, and not always finite, line between his dual roles as news reporter and social activist.
“I don’t really fit that mold as a journalist of not having an opinion,” he says. “Even when I’m on the scene for a story, it’s hard for me to be quiet when I see something wrong.”
Following the panel discussions, audience members and panelists split into smaller breakout sessions, tackling issues ranging from personal branding to community engagement. Sarah Mirk, online editor for Bitch Media (and one of the panelists), teamed up with a magazine editor, a radio producer, a poet, and a filmmaker, among others, to discuss how independent voices can rise above the din of today’s 24/7 media maelstrom. One of the takeaways was “to reach people, you need human-focused narrative,” Mirk says.
“You can’t just hit people over the head with data and say ‘this is important,’” says Mirk. “You have to make them feel something.”
The event, organized in conjunction with The Nation’s 150th anniversary celebration in Portland, drew more than 50 participants, including students from the University of Oregon, Portland State University, Reed College and the University of Portland.
For Andrew DeVigal, SOJC chair of media innovation and civic engagement, bringing digital natives into the conversation about journalism’s future was an important step. “It’s young people who will be both creating and consuming tomorrow’s media,” he says. “Like Thomas Paine did in the 18th century, the independent media of the future will completely break away from history and create new systems that work for society.”
Story by Ben DeJarnette, MS ’15