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A night with Bill Keller, executive editor of the NYT

Mar 1, 2008 • Karen

Last night while on media studies liaison duty I saw Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times and Pomona alum, speak at the "Page, Screen, Pixel" conference reception at the MOCA. He had a lot to say about why, even in the age of the Internet and the blogosphere, he thinks the newspaper is, in the words of Monty Python, "not dead yet."

I agree with him, at the very least in the case of the New York Times. But I felt like there was a sort of disconnect between the things he said defending the newspaper and things said bemoaning its contraction. And that, I think, is the key thing to understand if you're gonna look at the old media/new media landscape.

Keller talked a lot about newspapers are different from (most) blogs because professional journalists have an explicit commitment to nonpartisanship and being as objective about the news as they can be. They name their sources, whenever possible, fact-check, and generally "show their work." But he also talked about how the newspaper's image has been tarnished by both zealots who care not for objective sources of news and legitimate scandals. The connection between the two is this: journalistic principles, while obviously valuable, are just principles. Principles don't require experience or special education to be adopted. Any blogger can decide to try and do all these things, if they want. Some do.

No one cares that the New York Times has a "commitment" to factual, impartial reporting. What they care about is the execution of that principle--that errors are in fact kept to a minimum, that journalists don't make stuff up, and that the paper doesn't bend its principles to serve the powers that be. So when journalists do screw up badly--are caught falsifying quotes or manipulating photos, or strategically suppress stories for the sake of their political or corporate backers (*coughNSAwiretappingcough*)--whining "but we're really impartial, I swear!" is not going to do the job! If you can't answer Chomsky's critique and credibly show that your corporate owners, advertisers, and needed governmental sources don't influence the stories you run, I may as well go read BoingBoing.

Keller also talked about how, by having legions of paid reporters, they can support things like international bureaus and lengthy, costly article research while blogs cannot. Yet--almost in the same breath!--he talked about how falling newspaper revenues and cost-cutting measures have slashed--guess what?--international coverage and a payroll large enough to support longer-term research instead of hack jobs. Hmm...

I feel like the newspaper industry has been cutting back and cutting back and cutting back until what it offers is little better than what others can provide for free. And then newspapers wonder why they're losing. Well, what do you expect?

There was a little time for questions, so this was what I asked Keller: "You argue that what sets newspapers apart is that they have things like a global network of correspondents, yet at the same time those distinguishing characteristics are what are getting eviscerated by budget cuts. Shouldn't it make more sense to invest more money into the things that set newspapers apart from blog competitors?"

His response was just, "Yes, yes it would... I should have you argue that in front of my employer!"

But that is THE question, isn't it? Media ownership determines media budget determines media coverage. For some reason, the owners of the New York Times (and pretty much any other paper) are cutting back instead of pushing forward for the sake of profit--though I imagine their long-term interest could legitimately be otherwise. Why? If we want to get to the root of the relation between old and new media, shouldn't we be discussing old media ownership and who owes who?

If there may be a compelling corporate interest, even for corporate old media shareholders, in compromising the supposed integrity of old media despite the consequence of (or, perhaps, to intentionally bring about the) fracturing media consumption on ideological lines... what does that mean?

Who knows. In front of an audience of Media Studies professors, Media Studies majors, and Pomona alum bigwigs, that was the closest we got to discussing big media ownership the entire evening.