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Hall of Famers seize tech changes for better journalism

EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com is partnering with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s School of Mass Communications. Students from the project reported the following story.

By Lesli White and Scott Wyant (Special to WTVR.com)

RICHMOND, Va. – The 26th Virginia Communications Hall of Fame set out to honor five media leaders for their career accomplishments on Thursday night, but the inductees also took the chance to look ahead into the future of journalism and media in general.

The dramatic technological changes over the last decade and the evolution of social media have both played a critical role in how people are now reading and watching the news. One of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees, Dorothy Abernathy of the Associated Press, sees these shifts as opportunities.

“The internet has actually opened up business opportunities for the Associated Press,” Abernathy said at the event that was hosted by VCU’s School of Mass Communications at the John Marshall Hotel. “We’re serving companies that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago.”

But it has also presented a set of challenges. With the emergence of the microblogging service Twitter and other forms of social media, the demand to get news content out quickly has never been higher. People can now go everywhere for journalism, said Abernathy, the AP’s bureau chief for Virginia and West Virginia, who at the same time stressed the importance to present accurate information.

Every year, the Hall of Fame recognizes outstanding communicators who did not only achieve excellence in their careers, but who were also willing to reinvent the media landscapes. Besides the AP’s Abernathy, this year’s honorees included Steve Basset, senior vice president and group creative director at the Martin Agency, Don Belt of National Geographic, Doug Harwood, editor of the Rockbridge Advocate, and Tom Silvestri, president and publisher of the Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Silvestri agreed with Abernathy that the quality of news reporting is essential to the future of journalism.

“Everyone seems to have attention deficit syndrome,” Silvestri said. “If you don’t nab them with the first word, the first headline, the first picture, they’re off the races.

“You’ve got to anchor with quality and distinction. You’ve got to be indispensable to your customers, so at least you plant a seed,” added Silvestri, who sees this shift also as a point of opportunity.

“With every moment of confusion and uncertainty, there are new opportunities that can be born. The neat thing about it is nobody said the newspaper is a product that doesn’t work,” Silvestri said. “It’s an audience and revenue play, so we can’t give up on things that don’t work. You just have to figure out the new things that are working that will make your audience larger, your revenue more diverse and your customers more engaged.”

Few know the impact of change better than Silvestri. Just last year, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and his company Berkshire Hathaway bought the Times-Dispatch and a host of other Southeastern newspapers from Media General, which had struggled with declining advertising revenues and mounting debt.

The difference between a company having a lot of debt and a company having no debt is like night and day, Silvestri said.

“I think many of us had invested a lot into our former employer and were sad to leave, but if you’re going to get acquired, get acquired by a billionaire who understands your industry, who really understands the depth of what community journalism is all about and understands that newspapers need some shelter from the storm to get their moorings back,” Silvestri said.

While the new owner has taken the newspaper into a positive direction, Silvestri said that it is the newspaper’s own responsibility to get the job done.

“[Warren Buffett’s] an investor, we’re the managers. To make his investment a stellar example, we’ve got to do the job every day,” Silvestri said. “I’ll tell you, he’s done more to make people pause and think again that maybe these newspapers will see it through the other end. That’s something we’ve been saying, but when the Oracle of Omaha invests in you, it’s a good thing.”

If one had talked to Silvestri a year ago, he wouldn’t have been able to predict the newspaper would be where it is today.

“It’s been a fascinating, interesting last year, and if anybody told you they could predict it, they’d probably say they’d have all the numbers in the college brackets right as well and that never happens,” he said.

Don Belt of the National Geographic is also very adaptive to the industry’s change. He is very active on social media in hopes of staying ahead of changes in the media environment.

“National Geographic is migrating more and more of its content online, and personally as a writer and author, I spend a fair amount of time tweeting and updating my status on Facebook,” said Belt, who also tries to advise other people or entities, organizations and NGOs on their social media strategy.

“I’m a big believer in it. It’s an incredible way to build community, to break down barriers that exist between people all over the world,” Belt said. “I’m able to use social media in a way that even e-mail doesn’t reach.”

While Belt, Abernathy and Silvstri adjust to changes every day, one award recipient said he is not impacted by these changes as much.

“I could care less about it,” said Doug Harwood, editor of the Rockbridge Advocate. “Honestly, the paper has a Facebook page, because Facebook gave me one and I figured I’d better grab it before somebody stole it. I use it to make wise cracks about when the paper is going to make it to the printing press and that’s about it.”

Harwood is cautious about calling everyone with a smart phone, a social media account and an opinion a reporter. There’s no substitute for good old fashioned reporting, he said.

“We’re faced with a world where more and more people think they’re reporters,” Harwood said. “I don’t care what anybody thinks about something. I want to know what happened, what’s behind and what’s important.”

In looking at media five years from now, many of the honorees said the future of journalism is unpredictable, but there is opportunity in the unknown.

“I would hope for the good of society in general that good old fashioned reporting skills don’t get lost,” Harwood said.

“There’s never been a greater demand for news and information. Readership has never been higher,” Abernathy said. “Companies are struggling a little bit on how to monetize it, but I think the future is going to be good because there is that great demand and readership.”

“Just like we didn’t know that we’d be purchased in a year, you can’t be afraid of the unknown,” Silvestri said. “But if you’re knowledge based and you have just a little bit of comfort with the fear factor, I think we’ll be okay.”

The Hall of Fame was established in 1986 to honor men and women who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in media and have strong ties to Virginia. This year’s induction, which was moderated by VCU professors Bill Oglesby and Scott Sherman, brings the total number of members to 145.  Ismail Amir-Tariq, a journalism student at VCU who recently secured an internship with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, received this year’s Hall of Fame Scholarship.

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.