Former LA Times Editor Speaks on Future of Journalism

John S. CarrollA “terrible decline” in traditional news media is causing great uncertainty about how Americans will obtain objective news reporting in the future, the former editor of The Los Angeles Times said during a lecture Monday evening at Duke.

Citing dwindling profits and widespread layoffs at publications nationwide, “the business model of the newspaper is shot,” John S. Carroll told an audience of more than 100 students and others at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Although the Internet has brought about many societal advances and made reporting easier, it also has undercut the revenue model that supported newspapers, Carroll said in the 2009 Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Journalism, hosted by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

Even though many Americans now get their news from online sources, most of the stories originate with reporting by newspapers, Carroll said. Reporters at these papers are the ones who routinely monitor courts, school boards and other institutions, as well as carry out longer-term investigative reports. The free market cannot be counted on to replace them, as the decline of original reporting on commercial radio illustrates.

“We won’t be better off unless the new media learn some new tricks,” Carroll said, arguing that “the posited army of citizen journalists at the local level has not showed up.”

For newspapers to survive, they must develop a business model that is more sustainable than giving away their content for free online, according to Carroll, who said it was well worth looking into the idea of micropayments, or emulating the iTunes business model and charging a small amount for individual stories.

He also questioned whether newspapers can survive if they continue to be owned by corporations whose profit motive can trump journalistic values. By way of example, he repeatedly cited Sam Zell, under whose ownership The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers fell into bankruptcy. Zell is “the classic self-made man who worships his creator,” Carroll said.

Photo credit: Chris McGuire/The Chronicle