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Annual Public Lectures Series > Walter Shapiro

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 13-17, 2005

PS_Shapiro.jpg - 22017 Bytes

Print Journalism on the Precipice
Walter Shapiro, former political columnist, USA Today
Summary of comments from June 13

The collapse of print journalism has been predicted since the advent of television news. It has appeared time and again in many contexts and forms. Yet for Walter Shapiro, political journalist and author of One-Car Caravan, there is still hope.

Delivering his lecture, Shapiro approached the future of print journalism with a mixed bag of optimism, cynicism and good humor.

According to Shapiro, "if there is a big message of this era, it is that print lives." As he reminded the audience, even the Internet itself is 80-90% a print-based medium, and newspapers, he said, continue to enjoy a profit margin of 20-30%, a level that, Shapiro joked, was only seen in years past by the likes of organized crime.

Shapiro addressed the issues of declining circulation, layoffs, and decreasing profits that are commonly identified as the downfall of print media. However, it was his commentary on blogs that gave light to his greatest fear for the future of print journalism. Describing blogs as "parasitic institutions," Shapiro pointed out that the blogs are commenting on the news rather than supplying it. In fact, many bloggers have sought out obscure information to discredit news outlets.

If this trend continues, Shapiro foresees an age where instead of many local news outlets; there will be only a handful of news sources. And to complement these outlets, there will be 10 million people logging commentary into personal blogs.

Shapiro also addressed recent concerns surrounding the use of anonymous sources as well as the increasing brevity of news stories. He also stressed the critical importance of identifying political "spin" for what it is. And urged journalists to seek the truth behind the prepared statements of government officials regardless of political affiliation.

However, far from leaving the audience depressed about the future of print journalism, Shapiro ended his lecture with something he called "take aways." These parting thoughts were meant to leave the audience empowered by a subject that has long been immersed in doom and gloom.

Shapiro reminded journalists in the audience that the power in the newsroom lies not with the editors but with the reporters. It is up to them to question the methods, topics, and editors at publications. Shapiro further noted that those in the media today know that their business is changing. It is up to the reporters to direct this change in a positive direction. Paraphrasing a quote from Gone With the Wind, he joked, "fortunes are made during the birth and destruction of empires."

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December 4, 2007