Thursday, January 10, 2008

Newspapers in Decline, Journalism Prof Tells Rotarians

Attendees of Wednesday's weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Lancaster were treated to a delightful presentation by homegrown Penn State journalism professor Russ Eshelman regarding the impact of the internet on journalism - and particularly on political reporting.

Eshelman cited statistics from the Pew Research Center, indicating that 7 out of 10 adult Americans are now surfing the internet.

He also pointed to statistics indicating that the percentage of politically aware Americans using the internet as their "primary source of information about politics" more than doubled from 7% in 2002 to 15% in 2006.

"The internet is immediate, unfettered, and unpredictable" Eshelman remarked.

He cited The Drudge Report as an example of a blog that has had a tremendous impact. Internet blogger and recently-retired radio host Matt Drudge gained national notoriety in 1998 for breaking the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to the public on his website.

YouTube has also become a tremendous influence, Eshelman argued. Witness former Virginia Senator George Allen's infamous uttering of the word "macaca" in his ultimately unsuccessful 2006 Senatorial re-election bid.

The chief advantage, of course is that "the internet has just exploded in terms of the information out there."

But Eshelman's speech focused more on the concerns for politics, journalism, and society as a whole, as we move further into the digital age.

"My concern is that not enough people are making a distinction between what is really legitimate, unbiased, and fair, news coverage of political candidates, on the web and in the newspapers, versus some of the partisan shots that are going on," he said. "Just like we used to worry about how television was blurring the line between news and entertainment, blogging is blurring the line between news and opinion."

"More and more newspapers are encouraging their reporters to do blogs. I don't think that's such a good thing," he said, arguing again that it "blurs the line between opinion and news."

Continued Eshelman, "Media outlets are under tremendous pressure to be the first to break a story and we see that with the election coverage."

He is concerned that the pressure to publish as quickly as possible negatively impacts the quality of the stories produced.

But that's where Eshelman thinks newspapers can find a niche in their otherwise seemingly dismal future.

"In order to survive, newspapers are going to have to go with their strength, which is details," he proposed.

"The newspapers that are facing the biggest problems are the major metro dailies, which, I think, will have to become more like the Sunday News."

Russ Eshelman is a graduate of McCaskey High School in Lancaster and has written for the Lancaster New Era, as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he spent 15 years. He continues to write a monthly column on Pennsylvania politics that appears in both the Lancaster Sunday News and the Centre Daily Times.

His speech was warmly received by the approximately one hundred Rotarians in attendance at Wednesday's meeting.