According to the 2016 Ruhl Lecturer, Stephen Engelberg, journalists — and journalism students — are facing a momentous paradigm shift that’s affected not only how they do their jobs, but the unique role their industry plays in a democracy.
The Ruhl Lecture is an annual University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) event held since 1976 that focuses on responsibility and ethics in journalism. This year’s lecturer, Engelberg, is the editor-in-chief of ProPublica, a nonprofit online newsroom that uses the moral force of investigative journalism to expose abuses of power and spur reform. Its primary goal is to publish stories that make a difference and have an impact. Engelberg not only actively works to ensure that ProPublica creates positive change through journalism, but also strives to hold all journalists to a higher ethical standard.
As a seasoned journalist whose experience ranges from The New York Times to The Oregonian, Engelberg possesses valuable insights and critical knowledge of the industry and the changes it has undergone in previous years. His lecture focused on accountability journalism in the digital age, exploring the changing landscape of the journalism industry and how these shifts are affecting the moral integrity and financial stability of journalism as a whole.
Engelberg explained that there are many factors causing the financial struggles the journalism industry faces. The public’s expectation of free content and the emergence of digital platforms make it increasingly difficult to ensure financial stability and a sound business model for newspapers and other news media.
Engelberg warned that the consequences of this broken business model are considerable. “Hopefully we’ll eventually hit on a business model that works,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen and we’re dependent on philanthropy, I think the consequences are pretty dire.”
The local and regional journalism sectors are especially at risk due to the rise of online national powerhouses such as The Huffington Post and the recent resurgence of older national outlets, including The Wall Street Journal. “I think where we see the bigger challenge is in local and regional papers and the significant reduction of resources,” Engelberg said. “I think at this level, investigative reporting is not so healthy.”
Engelberg sees a need for the revival of solid investigative journalism that holds the nation’s government and institutions accountable for their actions.
“The internet allows us to have this closed-off conversation in which you’re never disturbed by anything that doesn’t agree with you, so I think it’s more important than ever to have independent, reliable and trusted sources of information,” he said.
Despite the problems the industry faces, Engelberg continues to focus on the positive aspects of these changes in journalism, including new digital platforms, exciting emerging technology and increased opportunities for information. “I think there have been some encouraging signs, and we have some exciting new developments in the field,” he said. “Buzzfeed and Vice have become real players. They’ve done some excellent work, and you can see some new approaches and ideas. And some of the older guys like The New York Times are really hitting on all cylinders. There’s a lot of good work being done.”
By speaking at the Ruhl Lecture, Engelberg hoped to not only share his perspective on these issues, but also provide positivity and encouragement for journalists. “I hope I can offer a little bit of hope,” said Engelberg. “My goal is to recognize the things that are difficult and challenging and broken, but also to say how great of a moment this is to be a journalist. This technology, which has in part destroyed the business, also provides us incredible opportunity. In many ways, this is the best time to be a journalist. I really believe that.”
Story by Nicole Rideout ’16