Sue Cross on the news industry's bleak state, bright future

It probably brews most of the news news you read on the Web, but do you really think Associated Press when you think of online journalism?

Maybe, maybe not. But in the digital flood of grassroots journalism, traditional-media outlets, including the AP, face an immense challenge in keeping their work afloat online. Sue Cross took on the task a few years ago at the AP.

Where many of her newspaper contemporaries see gloom and doom for the industry, Cross hones in on encouraging opportunities for news organizations to work with the Internet, not fall victim to it. As senior vice president of Global New Media at AP since 2005, she has guided business strategy for newspaper websites, helped launch AP’s Online Video Network and redeveloped the company’s hosted online news.

She was at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication Monday to talk about the industry’s professional and educational future.

An optimist/realist, Cross sees promise for the future, but is careful not to look beyond the next five years. She set herself up with a Rupert Murdoch quote from a recent speech at Georgetown University.

“‘We have one certainty: we can never be sure where the industry will end up. … Technology is going to destroy all the old ways and old assumptions of doing business, most especially in the media.’”

“If Rupert isn’t sure,” said Cross, “none of us are sure.”

Not to call short-sightedness a handicap.

“Uncertainty is not all bad. It generates excitement. It generates innovation. The truth is, that makes it a very exciting time to be a journalist, and I really feel fortunate to be in journalism at this point in time. It’s sometimes scary, but it is never uninteresting.”

Cross cited The Washington Post, The Tyee and Hip Hop Caucus as examples of journalism’s proven appeal creativity, social media and aggregation. Ink and paper may be dying, she said, but the newspaper is not. At least not in the short-term.

“It’s allowing people to personalize the Post,” said Cross as she demonstrated the newspaper’s new Facebook widget. “It’s a light, just kind of fun application. At the same time, the Post isn’t giving up for a minute being an authoritative force of political coverage. The Post puts incredible resources and incredible dedication into very expensive, very insightful reporting…So I think this idea of in-depth reporting and text reporting, as we’ve seen from the Post, it may take different shapes, it may be mixed up, but it’s not going to go away. Still a very important piece of the future.

“You’ll see a fair amount of blogs saying people don’t care about news anymore. Young people don’t care about news. First of all, common sense says it’s nonsense. And the research also tends to say it’s nonsense. On the contrary, I would argue we’re in really the biggest media explosion in history. You can’t get in a cab without seeing a window with news on it. You cannot get in an elevator without seeing a news ticker. You can’t open your cell phone, you can’t go to your e-mail without seeing news headlines. That represents a voracious appetite. Those would not be there unless people wanted them. So I see the interest in news surging, and that’s a very good thing.”

Citizen journalism: Credibility is cool

“It’s tremendous. It’s here to stay. It’s important. It engages people. It pulls in information and comments we wouldn’t otherwise have. But it’s too often cast as when you abandon traditional journalism, citizen journalism will be the model of the future. That’s really not what’s happening. It’s not A or B, it’s kind of A plus B, and it’s going to that.

“And now you’re seeing many of these sites come back and seek professional content. YouTube is licensing professional video because it draws an audience and there’s an appetite for it. Google and Yahoo are making great efforts to bring in credible news content along with all the rest of the content they offer. And so you again are seeing people coming back to credible news sources.”

Activist & POV Journalism

“I don’t think objective journalism is going to go away… But along with it, there is a huge increase in grassroots journalism. Activist sites are doing a form of journalism that the public considers journalism, and which gets news to the public. And I think they can exist alongside good, objective journalism, and I think they’re here to stay.”

As an example, Cross pulled up Hip Hop Caucus, a New Orleans restoration site that features some original blogging but mainly aggregates relevant stories from around the Web.

“They are not doing original journalism much that I can tell right now, but it is journalism to their audience in that this is where their audience goes for collections of stories that particularly interest them. And it’s really taking news to people where they’d find it.

“I think that it’s not surprising as we see this proliferation that you are seeing these kind of strong point-of-view, activist, non-objective journalism sources increase. I think there are clear dangers. I’m not sure people distinguish they have a point of view to the reader. But I also think there are very positive aspects of them in reaching audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be consuming news. They do encourage involvement in civic issues. And they produce rich journalism, in many cases, that otherwise wouldn’t get done by larger publications. And I do think this is a trend you’ll see continue.”

That said…

Not to blindly sugar-coat the struggling state of the news. The latest Pew report—oft-cited by Cross Monday—gives us more of the same: Almost 1,500 newspaper jobs cut last year. An expanding list of media buyouts that’s expected to grow in 2008. And, in a new twist, online news is struggling alongside its traditional counterparts.

Notoriously lofty profit expectations are in part to blame, but Cross says the larger issue is that news organizations still have not figured out how to adjust as their business models move toward uncharted territory.

“Right now, this whole discussion over the business model and what’s going to support good reporting, it’s not working for new media either. There’s not a great financial base. That’s why you see so much more opinion than reporting in blogs and citizen journalism and so forth. The Pew study said, ‘the journalism of the future increasingly appears to be a hybrid that takes advantage of the technology rather than fights it. But the questions of who will pay and how they will do it seem more pressing than ever.’ The fact is that the financial bind is affecting bloggers as well as the local broadcaster.

“What is the issue? It’s deeper than Wall Street; it’s deeper than the mechanics. It is a fundamental uncoupling of advertising and content. The two have gone together, and one supported the other. And now you’re seeing that really broken apart.

“There always was an assumed audience around journalism. So if you had investigative reporting and comics on the back, it kind of sold as a bundle. For the most part media have been able to sort of sell the bundle of their audience and say, ‘here’s the whole audience, buy this. It’s kind of the whole enchilada. And now, advertisers are saying, ‘no. I don’t want to be next to anything bad like a plane crash or Iraq, I just want to be next to this story about bottled water, and I only want to pay you if somebody clicks through on it.’ It’s very micro, and that’s sort of disrupted the whole model.

“The second thing that’s fundamental with the Internet is just supply and demand. People are now gaming and going online in all these different ways. News is a relatively small part of what they do online and what you can sell advertising against. So news is getting a fairly small piece of that advertising pie. Again, quoting Pew: ‘As a category, news websites appear to falling behind financially. They are not growing in ad revenue as quickly as other Internet destinations.’”

In-depth reporting: A hole in the bucket

“There’s no shortage of opinion, criticism, dialogue, engagement in the new media. You can go read about news issues in more sources than ever before… but what is being lost are some crucial things. One is in investigative and watchdog journalism. This is an aspect that really can’t easily be replaced by citizen journalism. Investigative journalism is hard, it is often dangerous, it is expensive. It’s generally not the biggest audience draw, so it’s not attractive to advertisers. That makes it hard to make it self-supporting. And it puts the journalist up against very powerful sources. So how many freelancers are going to have the wherewithal to have libel insurance, to stand up when they are threatened by either government or commercial means. It’s a serious type of journalism that kind of needs an institution behind it to really make it work.

“The second area that I think is being lost is consistent day-in, day-out institutional coverage. City government. County government. State government…There’s some added public access through blogs and cable channels you can go watch a whole city council meeting. But the reality is, if you look at the time pressures people are under, that role of the journalists to go do that for them and boil it down is still very important. And that coverage also is expensive in terms of time and reporting resources, and it has been cut back. You’re seeing beats combined, you’re seeing less coverage of that level of institution. Along with that is beat coverage. Real expertise. People who cover the same topic for years and develop knowledge and depth and contacts and sources. You are seeing beats combined as newsroom resources are cut down. You also are seeing people are going in with less expertise. Seasoned beat reporters are, in many cases, leaving the industry.”

Video healed the newspaper scar?

Cross sees some encouraging trends in visual journalism. Where it used to simply illustrate the written word, video and photos are now a primary storytelling device. In addition to its financial potential, visual journalism could help keep longer-form, in-depth reporting alive on the Web.

“I think journalists haven’t really come to grips with the rise of video. As we talk about the decline in in-depth reporting and so forth, what you don’t seem to see covered is there is a current increase in documentaries. If you think about it, a great many documentaries are long-form journalism, they’re just in video form. I think you’re going to see tremendous added growth in this area, whether it’s short video clips on a cell phone or full documentary journalism.

“You also are seeing people spend more and more time on sites, and that has some pretty important economic ramifications. The more time they spend on sites watching video, that might help the economics of gathering the content.”

What’s it all mean for journalism education?

“I think there is a role of the universities in bridging the next few years. I don’t think that this is going to get sorted out. I think we could lose many of the best journalists in print media and in broadcast media. And what I fear that creates in the newsrooms is a kind of generation gap in skills. Traditionally, you come out of J-school, you learn a little bit, you go work in a newsroom, and you really learn the profession from your colleagues; from seasoned reporters, from seasoned editors. Right now you have a situation where many of the best, the most seasoned, the people with real expertise are taking buyouts or their jobs are being eliminated. One way or another, they’re leaving the profession. That leaves me enormously worried about what happens in the next 10 years. And I think journalism schools have a couple roles to play in this. While the business models are being worked out, it’s carrying forward these skills.

“Universities also have a role as incubators of what’s going to come. You have a student population that is at the forefront; tons of new ideas fresh ideas; the ability to bridge public institutions; some private, experimental stuff. You can pull together groups of people and talent in a way and be the place that is an incubator of new ideas and trying to figure out where to go, and I would hope to see universities take that role in journalism.

“What do you do with a curriculum in a time of change like this? I think journalism education has something of the same dilemma that the industry does in that we still think of ourselves in these channels. We think of ourselves as newspaper people or broadcast people or new media people. And those distinctions are really going away. So what do you do with it? I think it will be a real challenge for journalism schools to figure out how to do it just in a practical sense when things are changing this rapidly.”

About Jim Wayne

After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.