Emily Bell: Opening of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010
Good evening, and thank you.
Thank you, Martin. I am pleased also that I am no longer an adversary, and I'm glad you are doing so much with the iPad, as Steve Jobs certainly needs all the help he can get. I'd like to thank President Bollinger and both Nicholas Lemann and Bill Grueskin, both who are instrumental in me being here this evening. It was their enthusiasm and vision for the Center, which brought me here - and their considerable efforts to literally move me and my extensive family from London, which I am deeply grateful for.
I wanted to add a personal note about the Tow Foundation and its involvement with this project. On my last visit to New York before moving here permanently, I was lucky enough to meet Leonard and Emily Tow. I discovered that Leonard and I shared an interest in the early days of cable; he as a practitioner and a pioneer, me as someone who covered that world as a reporter. In fact, writing about television from a business perspective is what first led me in the 1990s to become interested in the Internet and its possibilities.
It struck me that the issues Leonard Tow and his industry contemporaries dealt are part of today's narrative, too. The evolution of the cable industry necessitated a pioneering spirit which had to balance the requirements of retail customers, content delivery, regulatory frameworks and infrastructure projects. As one former cable owner put it to me: show business and shovels.
It offered new choices for audiences and even public access channels for the first time. Network television heaped derision on cable – CNN was chicken noodle news. More excitingly in Europe, we were warned Italian stripping housewives would crowd the screens. Lowering standards, breaking business models, cheapening discourse. Thirty years on, the threatened cultural apocalypse has not materialized. I can set my DVR for "Mad Men" without wishing too hard for the good old days of three or four linear channels.
The infrastructure laid down by cable companies has played a significant part in enabling the broadband internet to reach homes and workplaces. Once again, there were anxieties of societal collapse, weakened business models and a an abandonment of quality content.
It has a familiar ring to it.
So it is entirely fitting that a Center, which addresses some of the issues raised by this new world of connectivity, bears the Tow name, and I am honored to be its first director.
It is also very fitting that the Tow Center should be housed in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. Joseph Pulitzer, the school’s founding father and the byword for excellence in journalism, is a grand figure now, but at the time was not precious or self-regarding about the craft. His mission in founding the school was to push forward journalism as a skill and profession. He was someone who thought hard about finding an audience for journalism, and a business model, and never let lofty principles get in the way of a ripping lede.
Since arriving here, I have been asked the same question a number of times, usually by students. Who are you and why are you here? An excellent question.
I started my working life as a print journalist, covering as it happened agriculture, a sunset industry if ever there was one. Then I moved into covering the advertising agency business, which fell into a similar sharp decline.
I also started my professional life just after Rupert Murdoch started revolutionizing the print and distribution chain for newspapers. Wapping, where the News International built its new headquarters and print plant , marked a low in industrial relations, but marked a high tide in newspaper productivity which boomed like never before. The "Wapping moment" of a significant gear change made more sections, more advertising space, and more jobs available for journalists. But it wiped out the need for labor in the printing and distribution chain.
Again, with 20/20 hindsight, it all seems much clearer that one day there would be a "Wapping moment" for journalists, just as there had been for printers and compositors.
I spent 10 years as a business journalist at The Observer newspaper, and in 2000, I moved to the online division of the Guardian. It was a privileged and fantastic time to be working there with great technologists and developers and a new generation of journalists who loved the pace, the reach and the humour of the Internet environment. The Guardian’s web success was founded in being "Of the web, not just on the web".
We opened our content and our platform to the wider world, explored better publishing systems and external social media tools. We wanted the Guardian spread across the web, on any device. We wanted open technology and open journalism. we even made a couple of apps.
A great deal of what we did at the Guardian in the early days had its roots in the thinking we borrowed from outside the news industry. It came from thousands of miles away from British newspapers both literally and metaphorically.
Often it came from New York: the Clay Shirkys, Jeff Jarvises and Jay Rosens all wrote and said things that made us think differently – even if we didn’t agree with all of it – and do things we would not have thought of by ourselves. Risk accompanied all of this. How often we were told we were hastening the swifter decline of print by proselytizing for the Internet. This circular debate, which is almost a decade old, centered on the unsustainable nature of digital news production.
The expectation of news as a profit center is historically unlikely. Journalism has a relationship with profitability rather like the relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, or Jude Law and Sienna Miller, for those who are more familiar with Perez Hilton; on again, off again.
The activity of bringing news to the public has only sporadically been profitable. It is not alone in that: professional sports and the airline industry enjoy similarly dysfunctional relationships with profit and loss accounts. As Warren Buffet famously remarked, if a capitalist had been present at Kittyhawk in the 1900s he would have shot Orville Wright. Maybe Joseph Pulitzer, too.
Of course business models in a changing environment are important. But this is not where we need to put our primary focus. We continue to worry about journalism's profitability, and whatever we do must be sustainable, but there are other issues which deserve as much attention.
In order to have a business model you need a business. For a business we need a market. The market needs a product, and if journalism is our product, it has to have two things to connect to a market:
- It has to be relevant.
- It has to be trusted.
These represent the two key challenges for digital journalism - for all journalism - but they are issues we can tackle in a much more substantive way digitally. There are, of course, many reasons to trust journalists and indeed journalism. Journalists do brilliant and extraordinary things every day. They increasingly risk death or torture or imprisonment or ruinous legal expense for unearthing and sharing information. However, oversupply in media has meant that the high notes in journalism are sometimes lost in a welter of repetition, irrelevant news, sensationalism, untruth and occasionally corrupt or illegal practices. I am not talking about the web here either – TV, newspapers, magazines all bear historical responsibility.
As we enter an age of abundance for its own sake being replaced by differentiation, the web offers a better way forward. In fact, it offers great opportunities for better journalism full stop.
In rebuilding - or rebooting - journalism, digital technologies are central to the solution, and not as many would have them, the source of the problem.
As journalists, facing our own "Wapping moment," we must examine some of the foundation stones of journalism and build better. We can acknowledge and perpetuate what is good about the best of our craft, but there is in truth so much opportunity to improve. We do not want to sustain parts of the business that need not a new model, but a sledgehammer. When we rebuild journalism we want it to be a more diverse and inclusive than the parts of the profession we have all at some point worked for.
A rebuilt journalism has to hold power to account, but be accountable and transparent itself. Rebuilt journalism has to be sustainable and not carry with it the extraordinary and untenable fixed costs of the past. It has to understand how to uphold free speech and tell stories in a world where protecting sources is evermore complicated. Rebuilt journalism has to use new ways to re-engage a generation alienated by old formats and for who screen-based portable devices bring the world to them. It has to live in a world of scarcer resources by understanding how to create production efficiencies, and measuring and understanding the impact of its output. It has to tell stories as they happen, and construct narratives, which make sense in perpetuity.
Rebuilt journalism has a vital role in a world of information overload and explanation drought by striking a new relationship between data and narrative. It needs skilled practitioners to mine data and text, but to think journalistically in relating this information through words, pictures and graphics. Rebuilt journalism needs to include the citizen and witness as a participant, and not just a recipient. But the new complexities demand professional intervention and standards, too.
Journalism has been set some profound challenges by digital progress, and needs help answering them. Who owns personal data? Does the media have a role in defining what is public and what is private, and achieving "controlled transparency"? When everyone is potentially a source, how can we keep them safe when they are in danger from disclosure? When replication and reproduction is easy, how can we add authenticity and authority as an asset to reporting and comment?
We are already seeing fascinating developments in these areas. Whatever one thinks of it, the Wikileaks posting of Afghan war documents in collaboration with three internationally diverse publishers - The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, was a very significant moment. ProPublica, already with a Pulitzer under its belt, is way ahead of most newsrooms in understanding what to do with data. The transparent story and the see-through journalist, if you can stomach such an image, will shortly be commonplace.
There are so many content and news start-ups at the moment, that they are like NYC rats – you notice one, and there will be 10 more nearby. I hope they are as resourceful and robust as the inhabitants of Silicon Alley, where the likes of Slate, Gawker, the Onion and Huffington Post represent the new establishment of digital media.
Rebuilt journalism is going to look very different from journalism of the past.
As a practitioner, I was able to play around with new ideas and take risks. We were lucky that the Guardian was a safe, creative and funded environment. I had a great editor in Alan Rusbridger, who completely understood and championed the importance of the web, and a very supportive ownership in the form of the Scott Trust. But it is increasingly hard for professional newsrooms to balance the demands of innovation with the pressured day-to-day reality of publishing. Rebuilding journalism has to be done both by and with the participation of those who are not from the traditional industry but bring a better understanding of the technology and a different perspective on our business.
We need a new type of journalist to sit at the center of this. And this entails a new set of skills and a new way of thinking.
The Tow Center must be an institution which leads this thinking. With its relationship with the industry, its history, reputation, ambition and location, Columbia is an obvious place for this to happen. Right here and right now in this city, you have a unique combination of factors for digital journalism. You have funding; you have technologists; and you have a strong tradition of journalism and content production; and you have three very different but highly inspiring journalism and communication schools, with outstanding universities attached to them.
I would like the Tow Center to be first and foremost a place where these divergent groups meet. The Tow Center should be the place where technology and journalism meet, and where education and practice meet. This is necessary to crack the hard questions, central to journalism’s future and important for the future of public knowledge and debate.
Columbia J-School's Hearst new media visiting fellow this year is Krishna Bharat, who invented Google News. Some think this is like inviting King Herod to participate in your early learning program. Enthusiasm and expertise like Krishna's needs to be plugged into journalism if we are to make progress. No one from mainstream media thought to look at the computer science graduate programs of schools like Stanford, MIT and Columbia in the 1990s to help navigate the future. And what a huge mistake that was.
The mission of the Tow Center as part of this changed relationship with the wider world, has three main points of focus.
We have already released our first research document, authored by Lucas Graves and John Kelly, looking at the issues surrounding the application of web measurement standards to news output. We want to produce more research like this: practical and useful for the industry, and which looks at aspects of the digital world in a way only an independent organization can. It will be followed in the spring by a further report on profitability in online journalism. We have just advertised for a second professor to help us extend our thinking and research into new areas. Columbia has participated in and published much good research in the past, including the Schudson/Downie report, which I know has resonated with practitioners and regulators. This is a strong base on which to build.
We welcome ideas from a wide number of areas, which are equally engaged with the issues of free speech, privacy and sustainability.
The second area is in educating the students who come to Columbia to, as Dean Bill Grueskin said in his all class lecture, to fight the next war, which will be very different from the last. The bold initiative to create a joint computer science and journalism degree with our colleagues at the Engineering School is recruiting now. We will have the first intake of students here in 2011, and I hope this is the beginning in a new phase of educational silo breaking, as well as introducing the necessary skills to rebuild journalism.
We want the ethos of experimentation to permeate everything we do across the curriculum to reflect the changed world our students will enter. Our journalists will need to serve a far more complex world with the highest standards, and it is our job to provide the educational foundation for that. This sounds lofty and idealistic, but has immediate practical applications: they will be the journalists who know how to glean and interpret data and marry it to compelling narrative. They will understand the capacity and limitations of software, and how to optimize its use for journalism. They will understand the importance of finding, measuring and retaining an audience and what methods to use. They will be the first generation which eradicates the divide between technology and journalism.
The third area for focus is in putting the Tow Center out into the wider world. We want to host and lead this high octane debate about our changing profession, the society it serves and the democracy it upholds.
Columbia already has under its auspices the Columbia Journalism Review. It hosts extraordinary events and speakers. There is much here everyday which is valuable for the world and Tow should become the focus and by-word for intelligent debate about journalism and the digital society. Many of you in this room have already inspired different thinking and done pioneering work, and we want you to be part of this open debate. I don’t believe that the seemingly intractable issues and complex problems we have are solvable by one business, one organization or even within one discipline. They are not just relevant to one country, but have international relevance.
The standards, practices and understanding we need to collectively bring to this are not just for an elite; they are for everybody.
The journalism students who come here or to any school have an overpowering investment in the future development and reimagining of journalism. It is an exciting time to be here and a rare opportunity. As Joseph Pulitzer would say, don’t mess it up.
I have no bottle and nothing to smash it over, which is exactly how something rooted in the virtual world should be, but I would like to declare the Tow Center open and invite your immediate questions and participation.