Lauren Rich Fine: A conversation about news media

Lauren Rich Fine visited with my ethics class at Kent State yesterday. I’ve mentioned Lauren before. She joined the university last semester as a “practitioner in residence.” And part of her duties is to help tell the rest of the world about the great things that are happening here involving our School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

She’s the perfect person for the job. She has at a minimum a national reputation as an expert on the news media, gained through years of experience as an industry analyst with Merrill Lynch. She’s also a passionate advocate for a strong news media in this country with all the implications that has for our democracy.

She talked to the class and fielded questions on a variety of subjects ranging from the financial problems facing the newspaper industry today to the growing importance and acceptance of public relations and advertising. And she touched on a number of ethical issues and concerns such as transparency.

Here are some highlights. The students are also writing about her remarks, and I’ll share some of those perspectives with you next week. And please recognize that this is a very general overview. She went into considerable depth in talking about many of these topics. If you have the opportunity to hear her at a conference or other venue by all means do it.

Saying that —

Newspapers – the print version – will continue to get smaller, with fewer pages and a reduction in international and national news. The Internet – and online media of all kinds, including blogs – are driving the focus on local news. Newspapers in particular were slow to embrace this reality.

A challenge facing online media in general – including newspapers – is transparency. How do readers know about the honesty, accuracy and even the intentions of those who post comments online? For that reason, Lauren doesn’t envision a time when online news media will embrace the idea of anonymous postings. That happens now on many blogs. More on that later.

The traditional tension between the editorial/news side of newspapers and the business/advertising side is more intense now than ever. She said that previously the news staff and the advertising staff generally disliked each other. Now in many cases they hate each other. Why? The news staff, faced with doing the same or more with less resources, blames the advertising staff for not generating enough revenue. The problems here: the loss of classified advertising to online venues – and the decline in the automobile industry that has reduced ad spending, among others.

The winners in all this have been public relations firms and advertising agencies. Public relations is being viewed as more of a necessary and effective way for organizations to tell their stories. And advertising is a hot industry again, with an emphasis on creativity that didn’t exist a few years ago.

And for me at least one of the most interesting points Lauren made was about civility. She wrote (and perhaps still intends to write) a blog for The Huffington Post. But she wasn’t very thrilled with the experience, to say the least. Why? She said the number of rude and nasty comments – most if not all posted anonymously – were tough to deal with. Is she OK with criticism? Yes. Did she welcome an informed discussion on important issues? Yes. Did that happen? Not much.

So the news media are undergoing tremendous change. But civility, honesty, fairness, accuracy and transparency still matter. We could all have an interesting conversation on those points. I know students in my ethics class had an interesting conversation yesterday with Lauren Rich Fine.

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