28 November 2011
Upon gaining a place in the fellowship I joined 10 journalists from 10 countries for two months of immersion in US politics, business, culture and media. The World Press Institute is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was the perfect launching pad for a cross-continental tour of media outlets. A rigorous program of interviews, study and reporting spanned a dozen cities including New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Each fellow was required to set a professional goal to explore during the program. I decided to explore ways to better engage with television audiences, using methods including social media, but without sacrificing quality of content for the “bells and whistles” of new technology.
One of the best examples of this could be found right at our base in Minnesota, where Minnesota Public Radio has established its Public Insight Network. Listeners around the world are encouraged to sign up, provide details to verify their identity, and list their areas of expertise or interest. Network members can be contacted if a story requiring a particular area of expertise hits the headlines. New members are also asked what topics they’d like to see MPR investigate. It is an ingenious way of directly involving the audience, but far more meaningful than, say, using audience tweets as screen-grabs.
Learning the rigorous process CNN uses to verify tweets and video from areas of the world their journalists cannot access (i.e. Syria) was also informative. By using a team of experts to analyse details like geography and dialect, they guard against false accounts or manipulated vision going to air.
A new media model
The question facing most newspapers in the US - as in Australia - is how to leverage the credibility and power of a respected masthead and transfer it to new concepts of news. At the Boston Globe, which narrowly avoided closure and cut staff by a third due to budget problems, the editor told us, "newspapers are no longer newspapers - they are multimedia outlets". Smartphones and tablets are the vehicle for this change; they make the transition easy from the consumers' point of view.
But creating cultural change in the newsroom is the challenge. As in Australia, most outlets do it by requiring reporters to file across platforms. But in the US, I discovered a trend that is not reflected in Australia.
Most newsrooms have sliced their international and investigative budgets, with a few exceptions. Across the US, publicly or foundation-funded investigative ventures are filling the void. One of the best known, ProPublica, runs investigations and offers the results to other outlets for free. It has partnered with the Washington Post and Frontline.
The Centre for Investigative Reporting at Berkeley sells it's investigative pieces to other outlets. It's director, Robert Rosenthal, says this new media model is democratizing investigative reporting. "Newsrooms don't have the money or staff, they simply 'follow' the news or report the nuts and bolts," he told the fellows, "investigative reporting is being outsourced."
While Australia doesn't have the philanthropic culture or prevalence of foundation money found in the US, this outsourcing of investigative journalism to dedicated organizations that then sell or give their work back to other media is an interesting response to a changing media landscape.
There's a lot of fear and even paralysis besetting the news business, but to my surprise, I found this tour of US newsrooms revitalizing and inspiring. The newsrooms that are thriving are the ones embracing new technologies, new funding models and new audiences, but without betraying their foundational principles. There's more confidence than dismay in the US news business, even in uncertain economic times.
Despite specialising in arts coverage, I found the immersion in business issues to be one of the highlights of the program. Obviously, the economy is a critical issue in the US right now. At Marketplace Radio in Los Angeles we encountered a fresh approach to business reporting, something host Kai Ryssdal described as, "business coverage for non-businesspeople”, or business reporting that assumes that listeners don’t know everything about economics, but they're interested in it. It was an inspiring example of journalism responding in a proactive way to a challenging social and economic climate. Marketplace has doubled its audience and its staff in the last 5 years.
Likewise, Bloomberg, which we visited in New York, has put on thousands of staff, while newspapers like the LA Times have cut staff by a third; powerful evidence that while the economy contracts, business journalism is a growth area in the US. Our access to top journalists in this field was priceless at this time.
It was also a fascinating time to examine the US political scene. President Obama began a bus tour of the Midwest in Minnesota the week we arrived in the Twin Cities, and the GOP race gained pace after the straw poll in Iowa. We travelled to rural Iowa to interview a political panel; a newspaper editor and local academic who explained not just Iowa’s role in the Presidential race, but how Iowa voters were placed at that moment in terms of their concerns and priorities. A couple of meetings with farmers and the soybean association in that state confirmed that economic issues were more pressing than social issues. Interestingly, one farmer told me he had personally met 10 Presidential candidates in his lifetime - testament to the power and reach of retail politics in the Midwest.
In Washington, we interviewed America's first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison. We had incredible access to the Obama re-election campaign headquarters in Chicago, and in Florida we interviewed the strategists responsible for Obama's pitch to Hispanic voters, as well as touring the Spanish-language television studios that convey this message.
Along the way, we asked leading journalists from The Washington Post to the Miami Herald for their insights into the upcoming presidential election. All this information was invaluable background for me when President Obama visited Australia recently to announce his Pacific plan.
Some professional highlights included sitting in on the morning editorial meeting at the New York Times, then interviewing the former foreign desk editor and national editor about their work; meeting PBS Frontline executive producer Mike Sullivan and questioning him about the basic steps his reporters take to build the elements of an investigative documentary; and attending filming of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
An international experience
An invaluable part of the program was engaging with 9 other fellows from Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Finland, India, Pakistan, Romania and Uganda. Several had worked in conflict zones, others were accomplished business or politics reporters. Comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the media in our respective countries gave us yet another filter through which the examine the ideas and assumptions we came across in our exploration of US media, politics and culture. Being required to write and report - and engage with other journalists on the news of the day - gave the WPI program a practical flavour that is uncommon in journalism fellowships.
My thanks go to the WPI director David McDonald, along with the WPI travel staff and local hosts for facilitating such a fast-paced, sophisticated program, and to the USSC for supporting an Australian journalist to take part in such an informative, once-in-a-lifetime fellowship.
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