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Allen H. Neuharth was the founder of USA Today and The Freedom Forum, and he grew Gannett to the largest newspaper company in the US. I talked to him about how the industry has changed.
Posted on 11.30.2010
MEDIA MATTERS: Advice from World-Class Journalists and Intriguing Media Minds
Throughout your career, you have advocated for the First Amendment. Has your opinion or perspective changed since internet “citizen journalists” have become so prominent … some who do not have the same sense of responsibility, scruples or ethics as we like to think the majority of traditional journalists possess?
We don’t need to change the First Amendment, but I have concerns that too many questionable practicing journalists may have a misunderstanding and misperception of the First Amendment. In addition, I think that it’s the responsibility of those in the media to try to help the public understand the difference between using the First Amendment for news and information and using it for a lot of phony stuff.
You built the largest newspaper organization in the country and you know more about the business than anyone else. What do you see on the horizon? What’s the next big thing?
I feel confident that the industry has a fantastic future because there is an intense hunger for news, information and entertainment that is far great than ever. And it is true around the world. The big question is whether or not the traditionalists in our industry can figure out how to satisfy that hunger. Our job is to continue to provide news in a way that the public wants to consume it. Journalism, as we used to define it, needs a broader definition now. Just like we are delivering news in ways we never would have dreamed of in the fairly recent past, there are future ways of delivering information that we haven’t even begun to think about.
Some people talk about the demise of newspapers. What do you say to that?
Indeed, things have changed; many or most news companies are no longer just newspaper companies. Many have robust websites, online coverage, videos and blogs. I believe the decision makers at the news organizations have realized that gathering the news and information hasn’t changed all that much, but delivering it has. The consumer is dictating the way he or she wants to get the news.
Are you concerned about the quality of some news organizations and their product when they have to compete, in both speed and drama, with all the online inventory out there? Is the caliber of reporters and journalists as good as it used to be?
I think the quality of most practicing journalists is still extremely high. I’m more worried about the future of that quality. As I visit schools around the country, I find there is an astounding number of journalism professors and department heads at colleges and universities who don’t yet see the total picture. They are still preaching historic journalism rather than future journalism. It worries me that they may be producing journalists who are just not prepared.
One of my employees wrote her college senior paper on you and she wanted me to ask you about what prompted the new kind of newspaper box your created. What was behind that?
Before the USA Today box, you had to get down on your knees to read what was on the front page of the paper. I wanted our box to look like a TV stand on the street corner. You could stand up and read the top half of the front page. I think that had a lot to do with our copy sales success. The box was there, it caught your attention and you could walk up to it and read (and be tempted by) what was inside. It was extremely important.
Al, I ask all my interviewees one common question. What is the purpose of the media?
The purpose of the media is to inform, educate and entertain the public.