COMtalk

Dean’s Column

Photo by Vernon Doucette

Forty years ago this past June, America woke up to a story in the Washington Post describing a bungled burglary in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. The target of the burglars was the Democratic Party chairman’s office. That story, by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (HON’75), was the first tug on a thread that led to the humiliating resignation of President Richard Nixon, the only such resignation in this nation’s history.

Barely a year before, the Washington Post and New York Times had defied intense White House pressure by publishing what came to be called the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Defense Department report that showed how the previous president, Lyndon Johnson, had lied to Congress and the American people in plunging the country into the Vietnam War, a war in which more than 50,000 American service men and women died.

To many of my generation, those stories remain icons in a golden era of accountability journalism—the kind of fearless reporting that holds the powerful to account for their actions. By 1974, journalism programs, including ours, saw enrollments explode to record levels. Graduates of those programs have gone on to careers that exemplified the best of this movement and that, I believe, helped make this a better country.

Rarely, though, is credit given to the thing that was most important to the success of that era: the profits earned by these news organizations, profits so great that owning a major newspaper or TV station was a certain path to riches. These profits enabled newsrooms to spend vast sums on investigative reporters who gave fits to the powerful, and to retain fiercely aggressive lawyers to protect against lawsuits attempting to stop them.

And today? The decline of these formerly great news organizations has been well documented. In the past decade alone, newspaper advertising revenue (which makes up about 80 percent of all revenue), dropped more than 50 percent. Readership in the past 20 years has dropped from 62.3 million daily to 43.4 million, a loss of a third.

The notice of approaching doom to newspapers was first delivered by an unlikely source—Craigslist.org, the online clearinghouse for everything from used sofas and Chevys to jobs and services, all posted for free. Consumers used to pay hefty fees to have these listed in the local newspaper’s classified ads sections, which on Sundays often spread over several fat sections of tiny type. Have you tried lately to find the local paper’s classified section? It’s gone, or nearly so, along with those revenues.

A similar story has played out for TV news as the result of changing viewing habits (young people don’t watch the network news, which is why all the ads are for incontinence- and pain-relieving drugs) and the proliferation of cable channels with ideological slants.

Which raises these questions: How can journalists adapt in ways that ensure that quality journalism will survive—and ideally thrive—in this new environment? Will other business models emerge that can replace what is being lost in the printed newspaper or TV newscast? From where and by whom?

I think I’m correct in saying that these are the kinds of questions that not only keep Andy Lack (CFA’68) awake some nights, but that also occupy his working hours. As you can read in this issue of COMtalk, Andy is the head of Bloomberg’s radio, television and multi­media programming, an assignment that has him overseeing a worldwide news-gathering operation that reaches its audience in almost every way imaginable (except newspaper). Although he was an aspiring actor when he came to Boston University’s School of Theatre, the news business got into his blood shortly after graduation when he landed at CBS News and began his ascent into journalism’s leadership ranks, including a stint as president of NBC News.

Those assignments put Andy in the hot seat when the digital revolution hit, rendering obsolete not only the way people received their news, but the business models that supported it. As he told COMtalk, “Understanding the business of journalism makes better journalists.”

Andy joined the University’s Board of Trustees in 2010. He quickly demonstrated his commitment by supporting a $2.5 million gift to COM to create the Andrew R. Lack Professorship in Journalism and the Business of Media. The goal is to create in COM a learning laboratory where the questions I raised earlier can be discussed, analyzed and possibly answered.

Again, as Andy puts it, under the guidance of the Lack Professor, COM students can grapple with “the issues that journalists deal with and the business environment that they’re operating in. So when [students] go into this fabulous line of work we love, they’ll have a richer understanding of what they’re going to face.”

The result may be a healthy and robust journalism that ensures a golden era in accountability reporting lies in our future and not only in the past.

Dean Fiedler can be reached at tfiedler@bu.edu or 617-353-3488.