Future of journalism series: Extended interview with David Folkenflik

08/22/11 Dawn Morgan
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What will the future hold for journalism? WMNF's Dawn Morgan is exploring that question in a series of interviews. Part 1 is with David Folkenflik, who began his journalism career nearly two decades ago as a newspaper reporter. Since 2004, he has reported on the media for NPR. This is an extended version of the interview we played on air.

What is it like to report on your own industry?

“Well I’ve been doing it for about 11 years now and it’s a challenge. One of the things that I think has become commonly understood but might not have been a decade ago or so, is that the media is an institution much like government or major religious institutions or financial institutions or the like that have a lot of influence and deserve scrutiny themselves, just as much as any other.

"The media is a prism through which much of the country gets to understand their community and the world around them. And media I think on the whole does its best, although that’s painting with a pretty broad brush of a category there. But it deserves to be held accountable, to be scrutinized and that scrutiny can come in a bunch of different ways.

"When I took this on it was after a stint covering Congress for the Baltimore Sun, where I worked at the time. It seemed to me to be an interesting way to get at questions at the intersections of politics and policy and media and people’s understanding of those vital things. It’s not simply as a watch dog but that’s part of the package there."

And when your job is to question your own employer, like you had to do earlier this year, and to report on NPR, what is that like?

“Well there’s two levels to it. It’s important to acknowledge that for your listeners, that NPR is an important media institution. It certainly found itself in the middle of controversy by dint of some of its actions and some of the reactions others had to it. It seems to me that the best way to embody NPR’s values is to report on it, scrutinize it and to present its actions fairly and fully to contextualize it, to make sure it’s being done rigorously and to get the story both right and if possible first. It’s not simply to sit back and let others do the story for us.

"One of the things, regardless of what people may feel about NPR’s actions in the Juan Williams case, or in other circumstances, is that senior management did admirably is allowing a couple of editors and me to determine the coverage we needed to present to our listeners about this and not interfere. Even when at times some of the stories wee painful and difficult.

"On a human level, it is difficult than simply reporting on another institution with which you have less personal familiarity. Some of the people that you’re reporting on are people that you know socially or professionally. They’re people that you may have some ties or affinity for and it makes it complicated but it doesn’t let you off the hook for doing your job. People know that NPR pays my paycheck so I think it would be reasonable for them to know that I am familiar with some of the senior officials that I may have to report on from time to time. That’s just the way the game works.”

Can you explain the situation facing journalism over the last few years for the people who might not have been paying attention?

“I think it’s fairly well established now that the news business has suffered an incredible financial challenge, and that challenge comes in a couple of different forms. In the form of the economy that has particularly battered publishers very hard and I’ll focus a moment on newspapers because traditionally newspapers have provided the horsepower that has propelled journalism even as a lot of broadcasters and these days a lot of people online have done some very good work as well.

"But they’ve been hit by the recession, by the people’s changing habits in consuming news and they’ve also been hit very badly by the untethering of the financing of the news business from the production of news. That is, there is no lack of appetite for news, you can see that from newspapers who have had their readership expanded through their websites.

"What you’ve seen though is newspapers and to an extent local television stations can no longer assume they’re going to have local near-monopolies on classified advertising, on job ads, on car ads, real estate ads, all kinds of things that used to be mainstays for newspapers that would give them of year after year of increasing profit margins. Now people can go to Cars.com or Monster.com or all kinds of sites that can slice and dice the products they’re looking for in a much more efficient and effective way.

"And newspapers were very slow to recognize that the paid sites, the Craigslists, others were stripping away their financial model. And original reporting is very, very expensive. And the question is what is the news going to look like? How do citizens feel confident that somebody’s looking out for their interests that somebody’s watchdogging and performing accountability journalism? How do they feel confident that they know what’s happening not in their immediate environs? How do they participate in the news, how do they assure themselves that they news that they’re getting is not from some sort of cookie cutter template but actually original reporting.

"This has implications not only for the financing - which can make people’s eyes glaze over, after all individual people would be hard pressed to themselves to resolve the financial struggles facing the industry. But it can allow people to think for themselves, non media sites that will provide me with useful info, are there ways in which these sites might collaborate, ways that I can vary my diet? And these are some of the more stimulating challenge. Not just a great struggle, but a great promise out there.”

How did you get involved in the Page One book?

“I was asked by PublicAffairs Books to produce a book that would complement the documentary Page One. Rossi & Novack able to get access to NYT, looking thru the “keyhole” of the media desk, like I do; Carr & Stelter … how the new world of social media platforms work. They wanted to book to complement. I took the movie as a starting point rather than a resting place. Might interest readers – a set of voices, players in the journalistic sphere, different positions in the industry, how to find value in the current…at times even contradict each other. Personally, that was kind of my hope, a varied set of voices, different approaches offered to readers so they can decide what makes sense to them.”

What was the industry like for you when you first started out?

“I started out 20 years ago next month. I had been a journalist in college at Cornell, editor of the student daily. I interned at the Charlestown News & Courier. Then in 1991 joined the Herald Sun in Durham, NC, asked to cover high ed., which was a great beat if you think about the research triangle. Higher education is really the main industry driving the place, so it was fantastic. Duke the 2nd largest private employer in NC. My basic assignment there was to go out and get stories, editors who I felt really supported me, Bill Hawkings and John Hamm.

"It was exciting because to me a reporter’s notebook was like a passport, where it gave you the ability to travel in very different worlds, from major donors to Duke to wealthy alumni to people who worked for a little over 12, 13,000 a year on the university staff. I covered exclusive crime charges, political movements, social events. I t was exciting and intense. The newspaper then had gone through a round of layoffs and people were up in arms in journalism that such a thing would happen. The price of oil was quite high at the time, it was after the first Gulf War. And yet I don’t think we knew what we were in for. It was exciting to be young and to be a reporter and find story after story and not worry so much about the recession, I was worried just about finding to stories. It was exciting to be around colleagues who responded to that, who said let’s get this story in and move on to the next.”

And from there you moved onto the Baltimore Sun?

“I joined the Baltimore Sun in 1994. John Carroll who went on to be editor in chief of LAT, Bill Marymount his deputy who later became chief of news here at NPR and became the editor in chief for the Philly Inquirer, he was the number two editor at the time. They taught me a lot, as did my colleagues.

"At the time I joined the Sun, there were nine foreign bureaus, there were 15 people in the Washington Bureau. I can tell you now that all of those for bureaus are gone. There’s no one left full time as the Washington correspondent of the Sun to my knowledge. But it was a heady place. I was surrounded on one side by a Pulitzer winner and another a former Moscow correspondent, another guy had covered the wars in Bosnia and other places, David Simon, the creative force behind The Wire was there.

"And one of the things Bill and John told me, and I took it to heart over the years, and I remind myself is that we’re not paying you to be a stenographer. We’re not paying you simply to record what people say. We’re paying you to be the best informed person in the state of Maryland about the topic you’re covering that day. And that does not mean we’re merely offering he said she said. If you think there is proof to show a certain characterization of events is accurate and fair and full, he said, make the case. Share with them the kind of information and building blocks and that led you to that conclusion and then present them with the strongest possible counter argument. But if you find that persuasive, compelling and unshakeable share that with your readers. Don’t just simply harbor that at home. And it was a really useful model, a form of journalism that is not agenda driven and not ideological, but is whetted to the idea of trying to paste together truth from fact. And I value that a lot.”

When you switched from print to radio, was that rare for journalists to switch mediums?

“I think you can point to a lot of journalists who have done that. Jake Tapper at ABC News. He started at, I believe he was at the Washington City Paper and Salon.com before doing a couple of TV ventures, MTV, possibly CBS, then moved up to be a straight news reporter and does what I think is a fine job at it. Look at Gwen Ifill, she had been a newspaper reporter at a very senior level. Look at my colleague Michele Norris, she had worked at a number of prominent newspapers before joining ABC News and then later joining us as an anchor.

"That said, I gotta tell you that inside NPR, there’s still moments where colleagues of mine tease me, or not even teasingly, will say, ‘Well print people like you will approach stories in such and such a way.’ I find that a little comical, I’ve been with NPR for seven years now, and so the idea that somehow I’m still a print person in somewhat amusing to me. But it’s also humbling and it’s a reminder to work on my craft. And work on creating stories and a narrative flow for broadcast, and it’s also, to be honest, given me a little bit of an advantage in the sense that broadcast reporters now often write stories for the web and the web is text.

"It’s a different part of the brain. You structure stuff different; the architecture is a little different. They’re related but different skills. And it’s a challenge. And I would encourage your listeners to not go back and listen to anything I did in my first two years, because it’s a little hard to listen to now for me.”

What do you tell students going into the field?

“You gotta want to do it. You have to want to do it. And if you do, And if you’re sustained by passion, that’s fantastic. This is not something to do because you’re not sure what to do next. I find it exciting to be paid to go and be paid to go and ask people questions and knock on doors and more often than not people open up and talk to you. Particularly if they’re not surrounded by a coterie of pro PR handlers. You see a lot of the flash and the lights and Washington can be very exciting and heady and the stakes seem to be very high, and we’re only covering campaigns more and more but There’s a lot of stories out there that won’t get covered if you don’t tell them.

"And I think it’s important to encourage, you know, the famous phrase of John McPhee talking about the former Senator and basketball player Bill Bradley, he talked about what Bradley did away from the ball, the way he moved as a player when he wasn’t the one dribbling, was really defined him as a great college player and I think that is true for journalism as well where you sort of figure out people are doing away from the spotlight that’s often what’s most telling and will influence lives the most. It’s how power is exercised. And it’s just interesting I think to unpack what is happening, almost like stripping down a car and putting it back again.

"You enjoy that, if you enjoy telling stories, in this day and age if you enjoy finding new ways of telling stories, online and through new tech and techniques, I think journalism is a really exciting place to be.”

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