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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   June/July 2009  issue

Notes from a New Dean   

Preserving journalism in a tumultuous era


By Kevin Klose
Kevin Klose is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and president of AJR.     

I'll begin our conversation with a quick précis of where I believe we are in the craft and calling of journalism.

The headlines are something like this: Gathering Storm Tosses News Business! Newspapers in Worldwide Retreat! News Mags Cry the Blues! NYTimes in Trouble?!

Those headlines are painfully true. Centralized, for-profit news is in a globe-girdling swoon. Long dominant forms of news media, relied on by hundreds of millions of people, are fading into the background. The upheaval is chaotic, billions of dollars have been lost and yet new losses are a certainty. But the causes are not about mass rejection of mass media news. On the contrary, more people are learning more about the world than ever in human history.

Much will change in the continuous media revolution. Much will be discarded for good. Much that was good may never be read, seen or heard again. This once seemed unthinkable, or at least, improbable. Yet it is where we already have arrived..and where we continue to go.

Amid this remarkable global revolution, one may rightly ask: Does journalism have a future in our society, especially journalism that can be independent, make money and pay the bills for reporters covering the news or, more to the point, pay the bills for me, or my offspring who is drawn to journalism?

My answer is: "yes." I say this because I hold the view, based on a lifetime in journalism at home and abroad, that independent journalism is the oxygen of democracy. No matter how distracted, distraught or disappointed we may become as a people, as individuals, communities, regions, we will always come back to the home ground of democratic engagement — doing our best to find out what is happening in our world.

While the way forward to adequately paid new media is certainly clouded and unsettled, I am confident that this experimental era will achieve a variety of durable, practical paths forward that supplement, or perhaps eventually replace, the financial structures of today's struggling, for-pay news media. News that informs has intrinsic value. Extracting that value amid the free-for-all reality of the Internet will be achieved.

I hope the notes above convey the views I bring to my new post as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

I am honored and humbled to join this community of distinguished scholars, faculty, journalists and administrators at a university of such outstanding character, spirit and intellectual excellence. Our goal at Merrill is, as always during more than 60 years of the teaching of journalism as a specialized area of concentration: to provide the highest quality teaching, learning and research experiences for our students. Our faculty includes cadres of both highly regarded, award-winning professional journalists (including seven Pulitzer Prize winners); and highly respected researchers who have made extensive contributions to the continuing philosophical and intellectual growth and expansion of media history and media studies.

Merrill has a tradition of dedication to the intellectual engagement and empowerment of journalism students to explore, reflect and internalize the unvarying fundamentals of quality credible journalistic practice and thought. These fundamentals include accuracy, independence, skepticism, persistence, thoroughness, fair-mindedness.

In its simplest, but perhaps most profound, form, journalism is as old as human existence. It is nothing more, nor less, than the witnessing by one person of something happening — an event, an occurrence, a manifestation of an idea or an emotion — and bearing witness of that to someone else.

Ancient though it may be as a human activity, journalism in the 21st century faces many challenges. Like the dawn of radio almost a century ago, our new-media era, although marked by the retreat of traditional journalism, is also simultaneously a vast laboratory of furious experimenting, a time of continuous tryouts. The failure rate in digital media startups is exceptionally high. But so is the startup rate — entrepreneurs moving quickly to rethink, regroup, recapitalize..and try again.

As Asher Epstein, a highly respected, successful entrepreneur, said recently, the hallmark of entrepreneurism is "continuous failure, continuous restart." Now managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, Epstein recently visited a small group of our faculty and staff at the Merrill College in College Park to discuss working together to explore the financial challenges of new-media creation.

This brawling world of die-back and experiment confronts Merrill and Smith students and graduates alike. Cooperative, entrepreneurial learning ventures are a must in preparing students for the new challenges of this complex time. The university's own broad strategic goals enlist and underscore entrepreneurial spirit as a powerful change agent in dealing with the challenges of this age.

We are confident in our path to this future, and we look forward to continuing success in the learning and later work of Merrill College graduates.