With political factions in our state and nation polarized and the 24-hour TV news cycle having replaced newspapers as sources of record for many, the digital world has brought monumental changes to how we learn about current events. Is this a positive change, or has something been lost in the process?
This was one of the questions discussed at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston on May 8 at a Lunch and Learn program sponsored by the Essex County chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). A panel consisting of Stephanie Clifford, an author and former New York Times investigative reporter; Marshall Cohen, a reporter and producer for CNN; Kevin Lerner, a professor of journalism at Marist College; and Rob Nelson, an anchor and reporter for WABC (Channel 7) in New York, discussed the challenges facing today’s media.
Cohen, who was heavily involved in his network’s reporting and analysis of the Mueller Report, takes a holistic approach to modern-day media, as he told the audience of 300 how CNN is trying to keep up to serve the gamut of viewers, most of whom can find whatever they’re looking for elsewhere.
“Today there is something for everyone, and everybody can get exactly the type of information they want,” said Cohen, who began his career in 2010 as an intern revamping Livingston law firm Hauptman Law’s website. “If you like videos, you can get that. If you want to swipe on Snapchat, and that is how you get your news, you can do that. Right wing, left wing, every single group has its own outlet, whether you are tuning into [Sean] Hannity or [Rachel] Maddow. This is all here, thanks to social media and the internet.”
All the panelists at the event, which was co-chaired by NCJW board members Lila Bernstein of Mendham and Robin Naphtali of Livingston, agreed that President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, rather than traditional forms of media, has changed approaches to coverage.
“He produces a story, sometimes several each day, on social media,” said Cohen. As social media is now an accepted platform for news consumption, stories that might have once been most strongly promoted on a broadcast are sometimes given more play on CNN’s website.
In today’s climate, political news dominates the airwaves. For instance, political news dominated CNN’s on-air presentation in the hours after the April 30 shooting at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC), but Cohen said the UNCC events were widely viewed online.
“I know we covered UNCC extensively on our website that day, with stories, video, and streaming,” he said. “We study the metrics and algorithms, and a lot more people will see a story like that on our website than on television. It’s an open question whether that is good or bad, but at the end of the day, there are more consumers and more readers. It’s just a question of where and how they are getting their news.”
On the other hand, Clifford’s view of how in-depth news is reported comes from her print media background with an appreciation for traditional journalism and investigative triumphs — she specifically cited the work of Russ Buettner and Susanne Craig that led to the May 8 New York Times report that Trump’s businesses lost $1.17 billion from 1985-94.
“I think there still is a place for that reporting,” said Clifford, who won the Loeb Award for investigative reporting and remains a contributor to the Times after a career covering the courts, business, and media. “Luckily, the Times still has the funding for that type of journalism.”
Still, Clifford bemoaned the fact, in the present digital age, websites are able to immediately condense and summarize the result of investigative work that took months to report.
“It’s printed, then five minutes later the aggregators get hold of it after reporters have worked on a story like that for two years. That’s media today.”
Clifford thinks she knows what’s missing in today’s print media.
“It’s that middle bit of the good daily reporting in the city and neighborhoods,” she said. “So many layoffs have hurt so many papers. Because of that, there is a real gap in coverage.”
Having started his career at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and now as an anchor of Channel 7’s Saturday and Sunday morning newscasts, Nelson has a keen understanding of the effects the 24-hour news cycle has had on local TV news and newspapers.
“Local TV news is not in the same perilous financial shape as a lot of the print media,” he said. “Still, the 24-hour cycle has affected stations’ local news shows, and, from time to time, I wonder if broadcast television will eventually survive.”
With that, not surprisingly, Nelson still sees a role for the nightly local news shows.
“I still think, no matter what city you serve, people still want to know what happened at the local school, the fire down the street, the water main break that flooded the street, what happened in the subway, and is it going to rain tomorrow,” said Nelson, who served as a reporter for “Good Morning America” and “Nightline,” and co-anchor of “ABC World News Now,” and covered the death of Osama bin Laden.
From time to time, Nelson said, traditional and social media work in harmony.
“Naturally, as a reporter, I want to get to the scene,” he said. “But say I’m here in Livingston, and there’s a fire or incident in Newark. Somebody with a cell-phone video camera could be on the scene way before me or one of our trucks. When I get there and find someone who has video of a fire or something else we need, we pay that person for his or her video.”
So, Professor Lerner, with the ever-changing nature of the media, what do you teach students at Marist to succeed in journalism in the digital age?
“No matter what form media evolves into, whatever the presentation, one of the most important points I stress is the students have to learn the fundamentals,” said Lerner, whose book “Provoking the Press: (MORE) Magazine and the Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism,” will be published this summer. “They have to know the principles.”
He also sees another journalistic issue he hopes education can solve.
“Many of my students aren’t quite sure what journalism is, or what it is all about,” said Lerner. “No matter what American journalism becomes, we have to begin teaching our children what it is in the elementary grades. I feel education from an early age is a key to the future of the media in America.”