ABC’s Gibson out of touch, sends college journalists wrong message

Charles Gibson at CMA, New York, March, 2009ABC World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson entertained several hundred college journalists and their advisors in New York yesterday. He was witty, warm and engaging (see poor iPhone photo).

Unfortunately, he was also dangerously out of touch. The sky is falling and it’s your fault, he told the audience. But you can still make up for it if you buy printed newspapers while pursuing a career in journalism. (After all, “there’s no better career,” he said.)

Gibson began with a somber rehash of newspapers cutting jobs and going out of business. “The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is gone — gone,” he said with dramatic effect.

After blaming young people for getting their news online for free, he went on to blame Google (and his “good friend Eric Schmidt”) and even threw citizen journalists under the bus at one point.

Fortunately, during the Q&A, a couple of students resisted the star-struck approach of other questioners and asked him to account for such statements. One even asked Gibson to respond to Clay Shirky’s suggestion that we don’t need newspapers, we just need journalism. Gibson replied that Shirky is “full of crap” and that we are a “long way away” from any web site being able to provide the complete package of news and information in the form of a financially sustainable business like newspapers of the past 30 years.

Gibson is looking for an exact replica of the New York Times online that generates the same revenue as the print product did 15 years ago. He wants the complete package on one web site, apparently only able to recognize greatness by largesse. What if that same quality  journalism found on different sections of the Times web site today were actually separate web sites that were each profitable in their own right? How is that less important, effective or trustworthy than one organization that offers all of them?

I see a future where foreign reporting, local news, political coverage, business news, sports, arts coverage and more will thrive on separate sites, possibly under separate ownership. And this won’t be a problem for the user since aggregation makes it easy to get this as one package.

You have heard of RSS, haven’t you Charlie?

“The problem is we have to figure out a new way to report that will be remunerative to the point that it will support local journalism,” Gibson replied. “I’m afraid newspapers let the genie out of bottle when they put things on web for free.”

(He went on to say that Time magazine’s piece on micropayments “seems to be the most promising idea.”)

Disruption is not pretty. I have several friends who lost their newspaper jobs this week. But standing in front of the next generation of journalists without delivering at least a glimmer of hope for the future is simply irresponsible for someone of such stature.

Gibson had an opportunity to paint a picture of possibility, like Shirky, Johnson, Jarvis, Yelvington and Anderson recently did. Instead, he basically said “it sucks” and “it’s your fault.”

The students in the audience, who will cherish their snapshots of the famous newsman and were hanging on his every word, needed hope and possibility, not blame and regret.

There is no time to look back, only forward.

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