Interview with NPR's David Folkenflik: Changes in the journalism industry series
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08/22/11 Dawn Morgan
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David Folkenflik started his journalism career nearly two decades ago as a newspaper reporter. Since 2004, he has reported on the media for National Public Radio. WMNF’s Dawn Morgan spoke with Folkenflik earlier this week about holding his own industry - and employer - accountable.

"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. But it deserves to be held accountable."

And when your job is to question your own employer, to report on NPR, what is that like?

"There’s two levels to it. It seems to me that the best way to embody NPR’s values is to report on it, to 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.

"You know, it’s not simply to sit back and let others do the reporting 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 I think senior management did admirably in allowing a couple of editors and me to determine the coverage that we needed to present to our listeners about this and to not interfere. Even when at times some of the stories were a little painful or difficult.

"On a human level, it is more 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. It makes it complicated but it doesn’t let you off the hook for doing your job."

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

"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 however is that newspapers and to another extent local television stations can no longer assume that 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 year over year of increasing profit margins.

"And newspapers were very slow to recognize that the paid sites, the Craigslists, that others were stripping away their financial model. And original reporting is very, very expensive.

"And therefore 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?

"But it can allow people to think for themselves, ‘Ok, what do I expect of news outlets? Are there new players? Are there new sort of new non-media sites that will provide me with useful information? Are there ways in which I can vary my diet? These are some of the more stimulating challenges. I think this is not just a time of great struggle, for the news industry, but also we’re seeing a great promise out there and I think that’s pretty exciting."

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, in which filmmakers were able to get extensive access to New York Times, and particularly looking through the 'keyhole' of the media desk, the people who do what I do, cover the news media.

"David Carr, a charismatic media columnist for the Times and Brian Stelter, a young media reporter who’s helped to teach a lot of his more senior colleagues how the new world of social media platforms works.

"They wanted to book to complement this and explore perhaps and unpack some of the issues raised in the film in a different way. And it seemed to me useful introduce readers who might take an interest in the movie but also people who might come across the book on its own, to a set of voices, people who are players in the journalistic sphere, come at it from places geographically, but also from different positions within the news industry. And each offering a slightly different take on how to find value in the current media landscape."

Next week WMNF's Dawn Morgan will continue to focus on the turmoil in the journalism industry with an interview with Peter Osnos, founder and publisher of PublicAffairs Books.

Here is a longer version of this interview.

@davidfolkenflik on @Twitter

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