‘My Travels with Al’ – remarks from the 2014 Neuharth Award recipient

Editor’s note:  Remarks by Peter Prichard, recipient of the 2014 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in Media  delivered Oct. 9, at the presentation event at the Al Neuharth Media Center, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, S.D. The remarks were delivered following presentation of the award by Jan Neuharth, chair of the Freedom Forum board of trustees and daughter of Al Neuharth.

Peter Prichard and Al Neuharth

From left: Peter Prichard and Al Neuharth during the 2008 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference at the Newseum. (Sam Kittner/Newseum)

Thanks for that kind introduction, Jan.

It is good, as our friend and mentor Al always said, to be back on the sacred soil of South Dakota. And it indeed a real honor to receive an award with Al’s name on it.

How many of you in the audience had some personal interaction with Al? Met him, talked to him, asked him a question, heard him speak? Played poker with him?

Al was one of the most magnetic and driven human beings I’ve ever met. My life is richer for having known him, and I’m glad to know that many of you will understand what I am talking about.

You know, whenever Al was introduced at a formal event — I saw him introduced hundreds of times — he always said the same thing in response. He would stare at the introducer and say, “Thanks very much for that kind introduction, George. But I thought it was a little short.”

People laughed, usually.

But the funny thing was, Al really believed that his introduction was “a little short.” And he was right. I mean, a person could have gone on forever describing his achievements.

For the sake of brevity, I am going to try to sum up Al’s life in just a few words, in the style of USA TODAY or, better yet, Twitter.

Born Eureka 1924. Fatherless at 2. Paperboy at 11. Butcher’s assistant at 13. High school cheerleader. USD freshman. Enlisted in WWII, Bronze Star for valor. Back to USD. Volante editor.  AP reporter. Launched SoDak Sports, a spectacular failure. Fled to Miami, broke and in debt.

Talented Miami editor, newsroom schemer, Detroit publisher. Business genius. Visionary inventor: Florida Today, USA Today, The Freedom Forum, the Newseum, Stalwart supporter of women, people of color and the First Amendment. Tireless columnist. Lifelong gambler, aggressive poker player. Fearless. Giant of the Prairie. Gone, not forgotten. Forever missed.

Yes, Al, I know that was awfully short. But some of these people use Twitter, and they don’t have all night.

A few years ago, a newspaper friend of mine asked me, “When Al dies, do you think his obit will make the front page of The Times?”

He was talking about The New York Times, of course.

I thought that was a great question.

It did not, of course. It was about on Page 20A. That was a failure of editorial judgment, because Our Friend Al was as influential and as important a figure in journalism, and in the newspaper business, as Hearst or Pulitzer or Kay Graham or Punch Sulzberger. Some of you younger people may not know who these people were, but they were the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Ariana Huffingtons of their times.

But by the time Al passed on to the land that we have little understanding of, newspapers were dying, at least in their printed-on-dead-trees form, and it is quite possible that his accomplishments were under appreciated by the youngsters who manned the news desk of The Times that day. Besides, Al always liked to make fun of the sometimes-myopic world view of the people who lived east of the Hudson or east of the Potomac, and they returned the favor by snubbing him, as only they could.

The title of my little talk is My Travels with Al.  It is, as Mick Jagger once said about the music of the Rolling Stones, very derivative.

I was lucky enough to ride along with Al for more than 40 years, and along the way I learned a few things.

First, he believed, absolutely, that every business should be an absolute meritocracy, based on one simple principle: “What did you do for us yesterday?” He asked that, in one way or another, every day. And God help you if you had not done anything.

He believed that any person, whatever their gender, whatever their skin color, whatever their background or education, should have the chance, on a fair and level playing field, to go as far as their ambition and ability could take them.

He also believed, borrowing a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “that man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for.”

He was very exciting to be around. When Al entered the room, people noticed. When he walked in, often in one of his outrageous outfits — a lot of red and black in his later years — there was almost an audible stir, a current of excitement. He often remembered the names of your children, whether someone in the family had been sick, what your parents were up to. He made sure the company paid for spouses’ travel.

He always made you believe that you were a part of a very exciting adventure, going somewhere where people had not gone before, that this adventure might be bigger than all of you, but, damn the naysayers, working together we will get there someday, and wow, what a great ride it was going to be! Al was a fabulous corporate evangelist.

Al was also not without his imperial habits. There was that famous list of the items that he required in his hotel room, wherever he was in the world, which included fresh fruit (but no grapes), a chilled bottle of Pouilly Fuisse, and all of the newspapers outside his door, before 6 a.m.

For decades Al criss-crossed the country on Gannett corporate jets, but in later life he had to give up Gulfstreams for the impeccable service that the commercial airlines deign to offer us these days. Everywhere he went, he carried a portable typewriter, so he could work on his USA TODAY column.

So after 9-11, Al would dutifully put his portable Royal on the airport conveyor belt and, when it came through the X-ray some young TSA person would ask, “Can you turn that on for me.”

Al also believed in giving back. He came to this event in Vermillion for 22 consecutive years, and he brought Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Cokie Roberts, Tim Russert, Brian Lamb and, God bless her, Marilyn Hagerty to USD to mix with and inspire young, aspiring journalists.

In the last decade of his life, Al, like every other journalist who grew up in print, struggled with the impact that the digital revolution was having on the profession he loved.

When I grew up, not all that far from here in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, we had a very different media landscape than what Americans experience today. Thief River is a market town of 8,000 souls — mostly Norwegian and Swedish souls — serving the farm country on the eastern edge of the Red River Valley.

My mother, Flo Smith Prichard, grew up in Texas and had a way with words. When my father Jarvis dragged her up to Thief River in 1946 she promptly renamed the town Frozen Eyeball Falls.  That was because if you were brave enough to step outside in mid-January, it was quite possible your eyelids would freeze in the open position, a phenomenon my lovely wife has experienced.

When I was a kid in Thief River in the 1950s and 60s, we did not have all that much news. We had the three network newscasts, but two of them didn’t matter because everyone watched Walter Cronkite. We could get the Grand Forks Herald, we had a weekly newspaper, and we could find the two Minneapolis newspapers, sometimes on the same day they were published. And you could subscribe to Time magazine and, in my case, Sports Illustrated.

And the Carnegie Public Library received one copy of the Sunday New York Times, usually on the Tuesday or Wednesday following publication.

That’s a pretty sparse lineup, compared to what I can access today, more or less instantly, on the I Phone in my pocket.

But, you know, we were not news starved. The evening network newscast was very serious — almost no fluff — and it was straight news and very little opinion. Our local radio station — KTRF, 1230 on your radio dial — read pretty much the entire UPI and Associated Press news summaries during its noon newscast, along with the current price of wheat. So if you were paying attention, you could be pretty well-informed about the news of the day — in the nation, the state and the community.

So what about today’s media landscape?

My friend Shelby Coffey, former editor of the LA Times, just reminded me about a cartoon in The New Yorker that showed Charles Dickens sitting across a great desk from his editor. Dickens’ editor is staring at a manuscript, and he is the stereotype of the gruff and grumpy editor, green eyeshade and all.

The editor says, “Look, Mr. Dickens, either it was the best of times, or it was the worst of times — it cannot possibly be both.”

And yet, as Shelby says, that is exactly the state we find the media world in today.

It is the best of times: On the one hand we have never had so much instant access to so much news and information, available anywhere, anytime, on any device that we choose. We can access facts about almost anything almost anywhere, with just the swipe of a finger.

Our news stream is overflowing. News is everywhere: On phones, TVs, radios, computers, electronic signs. There is even news spewing out of screens in elevators, in taxicabs and at the gas pumps. And almost all of it is free.

On the other hand, it is the worst of times. Many great news institutions — especially newspapers — which for at least a century have been the engines of high quality news and the watchdogs of government — are today badly damaged, or, in some cases, finished.

You know, we often hear that the digital revolution has created a lot of value, and it has. But think, for a moment, of the value that it has destroyed or may be in the process of destroying.

Travel agents. Land lines. Compact discs. The music business in general. Book publishing. Mom and Pop stores. The Post Office. The network news. Local over-the-air television stations. Big newspapers. Small newspapers. Paper manufacturers. Letter writers. Face-to-face conversations. Well-informed news consumers.

I am not sure the digital revolution has destroyed the well-informed news consumer yet, but it is making inroads.

The economic destruction that has occurred is, in some cases, breathtaking. Let’s take one example, from the publishing business.

In 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a circulation of about 400,000 and employed 450 journalists. It had annual revenues of $465 million. The Inquirer’s revenue from digital sources was so low they didn’t even count it. Over the past decade or so, it had won more journalism awards than any newspaper in the country, including 17 Pulitzers. It appeared to be the best of times.

But, as the digital revolution unfolded, advertising revenue began to decline, and then plummet. In 2006, a Philadelphia entrepreneur named Brian Tierney bought The Inquirer from McClatchy Newspapers for $515 million.

Tierney invested another $5 million, trying to return The Inquirer to its previous level of profitability. He was unsuccessful, and in 2010, The Inquirer filed for bankruptcy. Tierney formed a new group of investors and bought the newspaper out of bankruptcy for $139 million, 73 percent less than he had paid for it four years earlier.

Throughout this period, hundreds of Inquirer employees were laid off, including scores of journalists. But management could not cut jobs and costs and jobs fast enough to keep pace with the decline of revenues, which had fallen off a cliff. In April 2012 The Inquirer was sold to a hedge fund for $55 million, 85 percent less than what Tierney had paid six years earlier.

So, in six years, the value of the enterprise went from $515 million to $55 million. The real estate alone was probably worth almost as much as the last purchase price. In 2000, The Inquirer made a $146 million profit. In 2012, it lost $5 million. Circulation fell 55 percent, to a mere 166,000.

During the good times, The Inquirer reinvested much of its profit back into the operation, hiring more journalists, paying them well, so they could produce a newspaper that please readers and won prizes. It could open new bureaus and improve news coverage.

Those days are over. Today newspapers like The Inquirer have been sucked into a black hole of declining revenue, accelerating layoffs, declining circulation and an audience that often refuses to pay for content. The cycle newspapers are caught in is the opposite of a virtuous cycle.

So where has the money that used to support good journalism gone?

Mainly, to just a few companies.

The companies that got the lion’s share were Google, Facebook and Craig’s List. At first Google took all of the search, display and mobile advertising revenue.

Then Craig’s List took all of the classified ad revenue, which was almost half of the print advertising pie, by pioneering the novel idea of giving people classified ads for free. In color. With instant access and nearly as many pictures as you want to take. How did that compare with walking down to the newspaper office and getting charged a few bucks for every letter you dared print.

Then Facebook got into the advertising business, and now Google and Facebook have made huge gains in local advertising, too.

In 2012, Google’s were about $50 billion. That is more than the entire newspaper industry brought in at its peak in the year 2000 — $49 billion. Google made a profit of $11 billion in 2012, and it has about 53,000 employees.  It brings in about $950,000 in revenue per year per employee.

Google is truly an economic Godzilla.

That’s all fine with me. I believe in capitalism, so more power to Google.

So what happens to all of that money that the newspaper industry used to get? A lot of it goes to shareholders.

A lot of it goes to Google employees. A lot of it goes to the interesting research Google does, whether it is developing driverless cars, Google Glass or huge Lego-like TV sets. Or bringing broadband to Kansas City, building balloons that can fly in space, or paying for long paternity leaves for new Google fathers.

That big river of money that was partly used to give you a better news report is a trickle now.

The midsize metro news organizations, like Philadelphia and Hartford and Detroit and San Jose, have been hit the hardest, but small newspapers are suffering too.

There is lots of national news — it is a commodity that almost everyone can consume and post and retweet and email, often for free. But the quality and quantity of good local, regional and statewide news is diminishing very day.

“Nobody’s figured a way out (of this vicious cycle),” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “Because there probably isn’t as way out.”

The Pew Research Center annual survey of the State of the News Media recently reported that 31 percent of news consumers have stopped reading or watching a favorite news source because they were not getting the news they were accustomed to.

The number of newsroom professionals in the U.S. peaked at 56,000 in 2000. Since then the number has declined 30 percent to 40,000.  Many of the higher-paid, veteran reporters and editors with decades of experience have been let go in favor of younger people and significantly lower salaries, and that has damaged the quality of news coverage too. The news people who remain are often being asked to do far more with less, usually for significantly less money.

And remember, most of the original reporting that is done in the country is still done by newspaper staffs. They produce most of the news that a news aggregator like Deadspin or Reddit reworks and puts onto your phone.

In the old days a journalist had time to report a story, craft the story, show it to an editor, make revisions, rewrite it, call more sources, and finally submit it for publication. Frequently four different editors would read and review it before it got into the newspaper. At USA TODAY when I led the newsroom, the story was sometimes reviewed by as many as seven different people, and I was often the last reader.

Contrast that with the journalistic system that’s being promulgated today. A spokesperson for the Nashville Tennessean recently said, after that paper laid off 50 journalists, that they were looking for “self-sufficient reporters (who would be) producing publication-ready copy.”

Translation: Some young underpaid people will be spewing out a lot of copy and video that we will print and post without anyone else looking at it.

The 2014 Pew Report on the State of the News Media, just out last week, led with the fact that many digital outlets, like BuzzFeed and Mashable, had added news jobs in the past year.  There are now about 5,000 digital journalism jobs at about 500 outlets.

Pew concluded that in 2013 and 2014, new developments had brought “a new level of energy to the news industry.”  These activities and the involvement of entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, John Henry and Pierre Omidyar, “have created a new sense of optimism — or perhaps hope —for the future of American journalism.”

Pew noted that BuzzFeed now has 170 digital journalists. And Mashable has hired an assistant managing editor from The New York Times to be its chief content editor.

Since I don’t regularly read Mashable, I thought I would check it out. So last Friday I checked out the stories that were listed as the “Mashable Must-Reads” on its web site. Here they are:

No. 1: “5 Fashion Brands Actually Eyeing Bigger Pockets for the I Phone 6 Plus.”

It took me a moment to figure that out, but I think I did it.  The people who manufacture jeans are thinking about making bigger back pockets for the new phones.

No. 2: “The Shocking Evolutions of 8 Iconic Female Gaming Characters.”

I did not investigate that must-read further.

No. 3: “When Your Job Is To Moderate the Internet’s Nastiest Trolls.”

No. 4: “I Felt Like A Criminal: The Pressure To Become A Helicopter Parent.”

Having digested that mash-up of the day’s news, I moved on to BuzzFeed.

The first thing they wanted me to click on was a new quiz.

No. 1: “How Well Do You Know Makeup Brands? Do You Know Your Benefit From Your Bobbi Brown?”

No. 2: “What Should You Do On Halloween? The Scariest Part of Halloween Is Deciding What To Do.”

No. 3: “Which Creepy Doll Are You?”

The reader was then asked to select from several images of creepy dolls.

Next Question: “Would You Win In A Fight With A Doll?”

I selected answer No. 3: “I’d Beat the Crap Out of a Doll.”

I immediately regretted my answer, because I figured the NSA is recording my every key stroke and I had probably just committed hate speech, which is now a crime in many places.

I mean, think about it. Ebola has reached our shores, ISIS is rampant in Iraq, Syria is in flames, Afghanistan is collapsing, Iran is trying to build the bomb, our social welfare safety net is financially unsustainable, the Senate is up for grabs, and these are the stories that these two new digital outlets are emphasizing.

This is a cause for optimism? Pardon me, but where is my time machine? Beam me back to the 1950s.

Is it any wonder that — according to the Newseum Institute’s most recent survey — that 29 percent of Americans can’t name a single freedom protected by the First Amendment?

I mean, between us, in the education system and in Hollywood and in the media, we must have managed to create 100 million low information voters who know who Nicki Minaj and Snoop Dog are but have no idea who John Roberts or Elana Kagan are.  I think it is highly likely that, probably by a 2-to-1 margin, more Americans can name five members of the Kardashian family than five justices of the Supreme Court. And almost nobody can name the five freedoms of the First Amendment.

So we are living through a digital revolution, and I admit a lot of it is fun — I love looking at Facebook every day, and I certainly printed my share of fluffy news when I was at USA TODAY — but this constant emphasis on celebrity news may well be yet another threat to our democracy, which depends, in part, upon a reasonably well-informed electorate to function.

So you may have gathered that I am not as optimistic about the future of thorough, accurate, balanced news coverage as Pew is. (Although, to Pew’s credit, they did note that “the vast majority of bodies producing original reporting still comes from the newspaper industry. But these newspaper jobs are far from secure.”)

Our old system of mostly reliable news outlets managed by trained reporters and experienced gatekeepers has been largely supplanted by the Wild West of digital news.

The digital revolution has empowered a nation of bloggers, some of them good, some of them bad, some of them worthless — who knows? Most offer an endless stream of opinion with a minimum of reporting behind it.

The digital revolution has also encouraged widespread manipulation of the media by all sorts of interests. Because newspapers have fewer reporters and editors who are busier than ever, newspapers and web sites have begun to welcome copy from all sorts of sources.

I sit on the boards of various nonprofits, and our staff members routinely write articles and the newspapers and the web sites just print them, word for word, and seldom, if ever, ask a question about the content that was submitted. I noticed in preparing for this event that a TV station in Spartanburg, S.C. ran the entire release about me receiving this award on their web site. I appreciate the publicity, but I really don’t think that’s a newsworthy event in Spartanburg.

In the old system of gatekeepers, a press release from any organization was the starting point for a story. A reporter would read it, call the source, confirm the facts, call outside sources, and craft a story — if the newspaper thought the release was newsworthy.

Except at a very few of the largest newspapers, those days are gone forever.

The deep partisan divide in America has also helped diminish the role and prevalence of the thorough, complete and balanced news report. This divide, which is often bitter, has had adverse effects on our view of the truth. For example, some of us are stuck in our own media bubbles and rarely, if ever, listen to the other side. The ability to self-select the digital news reports you receive has amplified that bubble effect.

The Pew survey found, in studying campaign coverage, that only about one-quarter of the statements about a political candidate’s character and record originated with journalists — twice that many reports came from campaign workers or partisans.

The survey found that political reporters “were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans.”

Maybe we should pass a law to require conservatives to spend a week watching Bill Maher, and liberals to spend a week with the Bret Baier show.

We had a panel this afternoon that concluded that manipulation and misinformation in the media is having a deleterious effect on democracy.

A small example. Our 35-year-old daughter, who is a well-educated social worker with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, got much of her information about the 2008 presidential election from the John Stewart show. I mean, he’s a good satirist, he’s funny, but he’s not a journalist.

Another troubling issue is that the media do not work hard enough, in my view, to make sure that reports are accurate, complete and fair. As Our Friend Al liked to say: “The First Amendment guarantees the right to a free press. We in the media must make sure it is a fair press.”

That is not always true today, where so much of the news and information we receive is opinion driven, produced by reporters and commentators with agendas. The public has begun to realize this.

In the Newseum Institute’s latest survey, only 40 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that “the news media attempt to report the news without bias.”

So what can we, as consumers of news, do to help the media do a better job.

First, as individuals, we can try to become better informed, more knowledgeable consumers of news.

When we read or watch a story, we can ask ourselves some basic questions. Was it accurate? Was it complete? Did it show all sides? Was it fair? Did the presenter have an agenda?

When we see a mistake or an unfair report, we can talk back to media, especially in local markets. It makes a difference if you complain.

We can try to identify the news organizations who do a better job and support them, by doing everything from liking them on Facebook or following them on Twitter or being willing to pay for their digital content.

We can teach our children not to believe everything they read on the internet, and ask them to try to grow up to be more sophisticated and thoughtful consumers or news.

We can talk to our friends, and attempt to gently advise them — I am asking you to be brave — to try out the news sources that may be more accurate and reliable.

And what would Our Friend Al say about the digital revolution and where our media are going if he were in this room tonight. (And, who knows, maybe he is.)

About ten years ago, Al often ended a speech about the media by observing that “you can’t take the internet to the bathroom.”

Well, now you can. And we are not going back to the three network newscast world that I idealized a little earlier.

But my guess is that Al would say that in every crisis, there is also opportunity.

He would probably advise the young people in the room who have dabbled in journalism to pick a segment of this brave new media world, and go out and explore it and excel in it. He would urge us not to fear the future, but to embrace the adventure.

And, because I am a congenital optimist — after all, I helped build USA TODAY, a newspaper very few thought would succeed — I do believe that there is some hope that the news media will try anew, over time, to raise its standards and improve its work, because there are still a lot of people who believe journalism is a noble calling. And there are still a lot of people who believe that the press plays an important role in a democracy, as a government watchdog and a guard against corruption.

One of the reasons I still have some optimism is because of a program Al started. It is called the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference. Every year we bring 50 high school juniors to Washington for it. They spend about a week learning about journalism, about Washington, and about what it means to be a free spirit.

I’ve watched those kids. When they arrive, they don’t know what to expect. But at the end of the week, almost every single one leaves Washington inspired, ready and determined to try to make a difference in the world — as journalists and as free spirits.

Al’s Free Spirit conference has developed a motto — well, really, it’s a credo, a guiding philosophy. That motto captures what Al was all about, and it might be what Al would conclude with if he were here tonight and asked to give the benediction, which he loved to do.

That credo is summed up in just three words. Because Al loved alliteration, each word starts with the letter D.

Dream. Dare. Do

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