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Reuters Memorial Lecture 2008

Christine Gemson writes:
Arthur Sulzberger described the changed world in which increasingly interconnected individuals find themselves. New technology, particularly the Internet, creates the possibility for improved democracy but it also creates a number of challenges. The audience for news is growing and people particularly turn to sources they can trust in times of crisis and uncertainty. Yet news organisations must constantly adapt while providing the highest quality news to attract readers and maintain their trust. Print publications will also need to figure out an economically sustainable model that will allow them to fully transition to the Internet. Hopefully, quality news and the participation facilitated by new technology will help undemocratic countries find their democratic voice and allow democratic countries to protect the values that underpin their societies.

(Arthur Sulzberger explained that this lecture was a repayment for a debt to the British people as Winston Churchill's grandfather had protected the then twelve year old New York Times from rioting mobs during the American Civil War.)

Summary of Speech

We have entered a new era, one where geography, time and identity have been transformed. These changes have been facilitated by communication technology, which has allowed us to truly become members of a global society. An important shift is occurring, as important as the ones caused by the advent of the telegraph, the printing press and the telephone, and it is bringing people to think and act differently.

The hope is that this global community will create a more open and democratic discourse. This isn't the first time that the audience is allowed to participate in the production of media content. However, the Internet allows more people to participate and involves a more international audience.

The news media audience is growing. In 2007, newspaper circulation was up 2.6% according to the World Association of Newspapers, with the biggest increases in India and China. The proliferation of television stations on cable is also contributing to the growth of news audiences. The Internet is playing a big role as well, with websites such as attracting as many as twenty million unique users in August, 19% of whom are outside the United States.

With major events unfolding, such as the current economic crisis, people want to know and understand what is happening and the turn to trustworthy voices, which are held in even higher esteem in uncertain times. In this historic American presidential election, the Internet is a major vehicle for participation, fund-raising, information and will perhaps even play a major role in voter turnout.

In spite of the important role the Internet is playing, we are still only in the initial stages of the revolution. To remain relevant, the New York Times is constantly changing and updating. It is sometimes not clear how to approach the future in a time of instability. However, journalism must always be about news. Good journalists seek to provide knowledge, even when they must risk their lives to do so. Journalism is about accuracy, fact checking and transparency. With the abundance of information, it is more critical than ever to be accurate. With an increasingly fractious political environment, there's also a need for thoughtful debate and a place for editorial comment. The New York Times strives to keep opinions and values on the editorial page and not in news stories.

Even as mediums change, quality journalism will survive. Those who stray from a dedication to quality do so at their own peril. It is also essential to protect the values that underpin democratic societies, including freedom of the press. The media is in a constant struggle with the government, particularly in countries like China with no history of a free media. The hope is that the media will play a role in bringing about the sequence of events that lead to democracy. The forces of opposition to this process will be trumped by new technology.

In this changed media environment, the long term financial success of newspapers is based on how the growth of websites outpaces shrinking revenue from print. The challenge is to attract more users, deepen their engagement and find ways to draw revenue from their use. One approach the New York Times has used is to stack its most profitable content (health, travel, technology, etc.) to attract readers to these sections and allow advertisers to directly reach these audiences. It remains unclear whether the Internet will create an unsustainable model or allow for growth. The challenge still remains for the New York Times to become a full web publication.