Reporting on crises -- in the midst of a crisis in journalism | St. Louis Public Radio

Reporting on crises -- in the midst of a crisis in journalism

Oct 8, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2011The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is more than an effort to reinvigorate foreign affairs journalism, its founder said Thursday night -- it's a response to the crisis in the world of reporting itself.

Jon Sawyer, longtime member of the Washington Bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said in this year's James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture that the Pulitzer Center is an example of the new directions that journalism is headed, "seizing on new technologies, new platforms and new models of collaborative reporting to engage more people more deeply than has ever been possible before."

Sawyer told an audience at the Saint Louis University School of Law that in many ways, the Pulitzer Center fulfills the mandate of its namesake, Joseph Pulitzer, whose platform calls on journalists never to be satisfied with merely printing news. Besides going beyond print to use all of the means of spreading news available today, Sawyer noted that the organization:

  • Has a Global Gateway educational outreach program at a dozen St. Louis schools;
  • Is involved in a 15-member Campus Consortium, with university partners nationwide who fund presentations by its journalists;
  • Has staged more than five dozen public events so far this year, including partnerships with organizations such as National Geographic and the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.

"On some days," Sawyer said, "we feel that we are more booking and travel agents than journalists -- and on many days we feel that we have bitten off more than we can chew."

After reflecting on all of the stories he and his colleagues at the Post-Dispatch covered around the globe, from China to Africa to South America to the Middle East, Sawyer referred to the period as a "golden era." But, he added, as he looks back to that time, he realizes that there were many ways in which journalism fell short, approaches that today's new enterprises are using to connect more with their audiences.

"Technology has given us far better tools today than we ever had then," he said.

That technology has let news organizations know precisely what stories its readers are looking at, how often and for how long. That approach gives editors and reporters far better audience data than older surveys, which usually showed that coupons, obituaries, sports and comics were better draws than stories on international events.

Those statistics also let news organizations bond more closely with their readers, an approach that reporters and editors seldom considered in earlier times, Sawyer said.

"I didn't hear from them much," he said, "in part because I was often writing about subjects distant from home, and I didn't think nearly as much as I should have about how and why -- or whether -- my stories were relevant to their lives."

Related to that connection was a common failure to sustain engagement in the issues that reporters covered, with little follow-up or effort to promote or discuss the topics with the communities that they served.

"It was a little bit crazy, looking back," Sawyer said. "We had invested large sums in making our journalists expert, on subjects of public interest, and then too often we let that expertise wither on the vine."

One of the ways that news organizations do that now also was generally ignored in the past - through collaborations with other groups, by working with media on other platforms, whether it is online, print, radio, television or all of the above.

Rather than simply worrying about beating the competition, Sawyer said, news organizations need to look for ways to "extend the reach and impact of our reporting, taking the time to find a television partner or maybe a print outlet from some other city with an interest in the same topic, and then producing reports that complemented and built on each other."

He noted that Emily Pulitzer, who helped support the foundation for the Pulitzer Center six years ago, likes to say that if the first Joseph Pulitzer were working in today's media atmosphere, he would "most definitely be part of the online revolution. (Pulitzer has also contributed to the Beacon.)

"He would be every bit as excited by the possibilities of multimedia presentation on iPads and interactive engagement," Sawyer said, "as he and his successors were about sending Nelly Bly around the world or introducing color comics and photographs to daily newspapers. We are very much driven by that same entrepreneurial excitement, determined to seize every opportunity before us an to leverage our resources as far as we possibly can."

Honored before Sawyer's speech was Richard Dudman, the longtime Washington bureau chief of the Post-Dispatch. William Freivogel, a former member of that bureau, noted that Dudman and Millstone, a fixture in the newspaper's operations in Washington and St. Louis, worked daily to make the newspaper's report from the capital as good, as relevant and as understandable as it could be for the St. Louis audience.

"We took their work for granted back then," Freivogel said, "but think about how extraordinary it was."

Recalling Dudman's experiences -- being captured by the enemy in Cambodia, helping track down a copy of the Pentagon Papers, being shot at and almost killed by unidentified henchmen on a later visit to Cambodia -- Freivogel also noted that Dudman had challenged conventional wisdom and was noted for "descriptive writing and clarity of thought."

Summing up his 27 years in Washington and around the world, Dudman said, "It was fun all the time -- with a few exceptions" and noted that organizations like the Pulitzer Center and the Beacon are helping "to perpetuate the Pulitzer name and the Pulitzer tradition, and I'm proud to be a part of it."

The Beacon is a cosponsor of the Millstone Lecture, and William Freivogel is a Beacon board member and writes about legal issues for the Beacon.