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Rupert And The Cherub

Sixty years of living and many other things separate Rupert Murdoch and my teenage daughter, Ali, but they both may help create a new era in American journalism.

Murdoch has offered a whopping premium for control of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. The Bancroft family, which has controlled Dow Jones since 1902, initially gave his offer a chilly reception. But the Bancrofts recently indicated that they are willing to consider Murdoch’s proposal along with other potential bids.

Ali leaves this month for a five-week program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The program, formally the National High School Institute, is more commonly referred to as “the cherubs.” Ali and her fellow cherubs will write and edit stories, study libel and other press law, and visit some of Chicago’s major print and broadcast newsrooms. With three years of high school newspapering under her belt, Ali expects to return to work on her school paper during her senior year. Though the career plans of any 16-year-old are pretty fluid, there is a good chance she will enter a college journalism program in 2008, exactly 30 years after her father graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.

If Ali pursues journalism she will enter a business very different from the one I knew. I graduated from a print program, trained to write and edit copy for newspapers. Some of my contemporaries focused on broadcast, photojournalism or magazine writing. We all were taught that if the press is diligent at finding information that the public needs to know, and reports accurately without fear or favor, the public will respond.

It responded, but not the way we in the traditional media expected. The public went away. Daily newspaper circulation in this country peaked more than 20 years ago. Measured as a percentage of population, circulation has been dropping since the advent of television. For years, most of the decline could be blamed on the demise of afternoon newspapers, but since the millennium, the contraction has spread sharply into metropolitan and national morning dailies.

Broadcasters fared no better. Half the audience for the evening network news has disappeared over the past 25 years, down to just 26 million viewers last year. Much of what else passes for network news, especially the morning programs and the “news magazines” other than 60 Minutes, is much more fluff than fact. On public broadcasting, audiences for The News Hour also are shrinking. Likewise for the cable news channels, including Murdoch’s Fox News.

Advertisers, who in recent years have accounted for more than 80 percent of newspaper revenues (and, of course, essentially all of network television sales), are leaving, too. The growth of online advertising is a major, and perhaps ultimately a mortal, threat to the traditional media. The traditional media are flailing back by trying to persuade advertisers that things are not as bad as they seem — that the fewer newspapers sold today are still seen by multiple readers, or that digital recorders are not gutting the effectiveness of 30-second TV spots.

If the audiences truly are abandoning print and broadcast news, Ali might be better off choosing a more promising field in which to start her career. But if she asks what I think (which, on this topic and many others, has not happened), I am not going to try to steer her away from journalism.

Ali could work for an online publication such as Slate, which did not exist in my time. She might freelance for a variety of outlets in all media. She could be an independent blogger or reporter. As an independent she could choose whether to rely on Web-based advertising sold by Google and others, or on audience contributions, or on paid subscriptions to provide the wherewithal to cover what she chooses. Such entrepreneurial journalism was all but unheard of when I was in school.

This newfangled journalism is going to require newfangled journalists. Ali’s cohort will need skills to communicate with audiences in ways and to a degree that my generation never contemplated.

Traditional journalism was a one-way street. Editors decided what news to print or air. Reporters gathered facts, interviewed sources, put the stories together and, because of inevitable constraints of time or space, left a lot of material on the proverbial cutting-room floor. Readers and viewers accepted the news as presented, between the advertisements.

For Ali’s generation, the journalist probably will function more like the consumer’s personal research assistant. Reporters will be required to provide not only concise facts and context, but also links to source documents, video files and additional data that the interested reader might wish to explore.

Distinctions between print, broadcast and online delivery are becoming irrelevant. Ali must learn to be adept in all these media to reach her audience of the future. But by “broadcast” I don’t just mean a studio in which someone faces a camera and reads a prompter. Think YouTube.com: The reporter who has just witnessed an event will likely upload a video. The consumer will choose whether to rely on the reporter’s synopsis or to watch for herself.

Sometimes the audience will join forces with the news organization to cover the story. When a gunman killed 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty, and then himself in April, the campus newspaper Collegiate Times drew on a wide network of student reports to keep the community updated through online postings. As that horrible day drew to a close, the student journalists mined fellow students’ pages on Facebook.com to get leads on the identities of victims. For a moving look at the work of those young reporters and editors, visit collegiatetimes.com.

Why did Murdoch offer nearly twice the market price for Dow Jones stock when he made his bid last month? Suspicions immediately turned to Murdoch’s well-known right-of-center politics and his perceived penchant for putting a political stamp on the journalism of his News Corp. holdings. In other words, Murdoch proposes to use the resources of his publicly traded company to boost his personal influence and ego.

But consider this fact: The Journal is virtually alone among the world’s newspapers in having made its Web site a standalone commercial presence, with about 300,000 paying subscribers who do not also take the print Journal. Murdoch probably provided the rationale for his bid for Dow Jones in a 2005 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he noted the rising influence of portals such as Google and Yahoo as distributors of news. He warned the editors that unless they can compete, they risk losing control over the most basic function in journalism, which is the selection of stories to set before the customer.

“The challenge for us — for each of us in this room — is to create an Internet presence that is compelling enough for users to make us their home page,” Murdoch told the editors two years ago. “Just as people traditionally started their day with coffee and the newspaper, in the future, our hope should be that for those who start their day online, it will be with coffee and our Web site.”