Steve Coll debates the challenges facing print culture today and reminisces about his personal experiences.
Question: What are the challenges facing the journalistic community today?
Steve Coll: The traditional business model that supported newspaper newsrooms of the sort that I spent 20 years in is under extraordinary pressure. You have two things going on simultaneously right now. One is a cyclical downturn of a pretty severe kind but familiar, a sort of recession or recession-like decline in economic activity plus inflation in newsprint and other costs. So you’ve got a really bad sort of cycle and then on top of that temporary cyclical problem you’ve got a huge secular shift in advertising and readership away from print. And I don’t think the newspaper newsrooms that we’ve known are likely to come through this combination of pressures without in most cases radical reductions in size to the point where the mission of civil service journalism that they were able to support before including independent foreign correspondence, independent investigative reporting of a reasonably robust kind, watchdog reporting at the local, national level. It’s going to be very difficult to do that work in those companies. So then the challenge facing journalism is how do you keep that work alive and how do you keep the values that made that work successful alive? And I think that that’s a challenge in part for philanthropy. That’s why I’m interested in the New America Foundation and working with different models to try to make that happen, and I think it’s a challenge for publishers in the new media to determine along with everything else they learn about how to create business models to do as the families that owned the great newspapers did. And once you find a successful business model as a publisher, well, what beyond making money do you intend to do in this constitutional system? And I hope that a new generation of publishers will answer that call in ways that the owners of newspapers did before them, but they haven’t so far generally.
Question: What was the craziest moment you had as a journalist abroad?
Steve Coll: I loved being a foreign correspondent. I traveled in lots of places and had lots of experience in war zones in Sri Lanka and Kashmir, in India, in Afghanistan. You tend to think of the travel and the landscapes that you were in, very privileged to be there with a notebook in your back pocket and just astonished from hour to hour of what you were in the middle of, The bin Ladens’ last project really was a return to the basic kind of street reporting and courthouse reporting and door knocking and sort of three yards in a cloud of dust, just fighting forward against a target that really is a hard target and- but just the adventure of discovering undiscovered information is really what I- is what I most enjoy.
Recorded on: 07/10/2008