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In Rush To Reinvent, Media Rivals Become Classmates

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In Rush To Reinvent, Media Rivals Become Classmates


In Rush To Reinvent, Media Rivals Become Classmates

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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As economic models for the news business crack apart, media executives from competing outlets are sharing their headaches behind closed doors at one of the nation's leading journalism schools. NPR's David Folkenflik was recently allowed to observe, and offers us this look at the quest to find solutions.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Up on the sixth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, these folks sure don't sound like those arrogant leaders of media giants that we keep hearing about. Richard Porter, director of news content for BBC World News, delivers an update on his efforts to drive some of its millions of TV viewers to its Web sites.

Mr. RICHARD PORTER (Director of News Content, BBC World News): I'm past the end of the beginning. I don't think I'm greatly much further than that.

FOLKENFLIK: Porter is laying out his challenge to 18 other media executives from outlets large and small.

Mr. PORTER: The marketing and creative teams that I work with have really, really got this, and bought into it big time.

FOLKENFLIK: Among those present are people from news organizations that also have an international reach: the Associated Press, the New York Times, and Long-time management consultant Doug Smith says it's pretty clear why these hard-nosed news executives are willing to share their secrets.

Mr. DOUG SMITH (Management Consultant; Director, Sulzberger News Media Executive Leadership Program, Columbia University): It's chaos out there. There's definitely a sense of terror.

FOLKENFLIK: Smith is the executive director of the Sulzberger News Media Executive Leadership Program at Columbia, now in its third year. The program helps news companies develop targeted strategies for change. A few months ago, the Christian Science Monitor became the first nationally distributed newspaper to scrap its daily edition in favor of its Web site. It was considered a radical step for the esteemed, but wilting publication, worked out right in front of its peers with Smith's genial guidance.

Mr. SMITH: You're seeing industry change before your eyes, and I think that that makes it rational to say we all want to find a more sustainable future to some degree. Let's find it together.

FOLKENFLIK: They adhere to Las Vegas rules: What's said at the j school stays at the j school. One of this year's fellows is Ray Pierce, vice president for circulation at the New York Times. Pierce says the Vegas rules make him comfortable as he shapes his approach to distributing the times on electronic readers.

Mr. RAY PIERCE (Vice President for Circulation, New York Times): We started the program. A lot of the goals were sort of lofty statements and sounded wonderful. And what Doug and his team do is they force you to focus on no, okay, that's great. But what are you trying to deliver?

ABC News president David Westin knew what he wanted his new executives to remedy. Budget pressures over the last two decades have forced the network to cut back its coverage of foreign news.

Mr. DAVID WESTIN (President, ABC News): Ultimately, we want to put on good stories, wherever they're from, the most interesting, most important stories we can find. But we have to find them. And I was worried that the cost of the major bureaus was getting in the way of our finding those good stories.

FOLKENFLIK: The standard for the gold-pated bureau, Westin says, was set under Kennedy-White-House-spokesman-turned-Paris-bureau-chief Pierre Salinger.

Mr. WESTIN: And at that point, I am told we had both a wine cellar and a full-time chef.

FOLKENFLIK: Those days are long gone. Now you see a cadre of younger, less familiar reporters.

Ms. KAREN RUSSO (Reporter): I'm Karen Russo in Surat, India. The global economic crisis has reached the…

FOLKENFLIK: They're one person bands, armed with light digital cameras, and they file stories and raw footage for newscasts, radio, Web casts and pod casts from eight spots around the world where the network would otherwise have no presence.

New media guru Jeff Jarvis admires the innovation, but he says that kind of change may not be radical enough. Jarvis heads the interactive news program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, also here in Manhattan. Jarvis praises the Monitor's decision to kill its daily edition, but asked why the Boston Globe, another participant in the Columbia program, doesn't also consider stopping the presses.

Mr. JEFF JARVIS (New Media Expert): If all we're doing is incrementally fixing problems in the current old models, that's futile and fatal. Saving a little more money or making a few more pennies is not going to bring news into this next generation. We have to reinvent journalism and the news business for a new, profitable future.

FOLKENFLIK: But Columbia's Doug Smith says it's unrealistic to think of changing an entire industry. His own prescription involves looking at each news outlet individually. He says you have to fix one company at a time.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, I think it's terrific when there are panels and forums and opinion pieces and things that throw great ideas into the mix. My experience is that it takes more than ideas to create a sustainable future. You have to implement those ideas.

FOLKENFLIK: Smith says they've thrived by turning competitors into collaborators at Columbia. And ABC's David Westin suggests you think this way about the news business during these tough economic times: It's much more like playing golf than tennis - you compete against the course.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow, David reports on ABC's efforts to strike a new tone for a digital audience.

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