Our Democracy Is Only as Strong as Our Press

By Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

When I became president of Carnegie Corporation in 1997, there were many issues on my mind, many challenges to our nation and our society that I thought could be addressed by the foundation Andrew Carnegie had created to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding. High on the list was the strength and vitality of our democracy and our democratic institutions. In a way, I'm a student of democracy because, as an immigrant to this country and a naturalized citizen, the journey to freedom, to become part of a free society, is a lifelong expedition. And along the way, it became clear to me that one of the underlying truths about democracy is that it simply cannot exist without a free press.

It is in that context that I understand why Americans have traditionally attributed great value to the idea of having not only a free press but a whole sector of American enterprise -- journalism -- that is excellent, vigorous, independent, and up to the challenge of asking tough questions when necessary and always shedding light on dark corners, whether they are in our nation or anywhere around the globe. The importance of broadsheets, newspapers, pamphlets and other publications as a means of disseminating the free expression of ideas was considered intrinsic to the strength of democracy from the earliest days of our nation. Indeed, as Thomas Jefferson noted in 1787, citizens need to have "full information of their affairs [through] the channel of the public papers, and to connive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people."

Even before I came to the Corporation, I was beginning to worry that journalism was confronting serious challenges, digital and otherwise, that it might not be prepared to meet. The business model that had sustained our great newspapers and other news resources was showing signs of strain. By the late 1990s, across the nation newspapers were discontinuing publication, journalists were losing their jobs, international coverage was becoming a thing of the past, and what we were left with was a kind of "journalism lite," that was providing people more with what they wanted to hear than what they needed to know about. This kind of reporting was characterized by skimming the surface of national and world events. How then, would we as a society, as a voting public charged by our nation's founders with the responsibility of helping our nation go forward to face whatever future would come, be equipped for this task without the knowledge and understanding that, in large part, it has traditionally been journalism's job to provide for us?

Recently, many have despaired over the perceived decline of journalism. But I see many reasons for hope. Last week, for example, I was pleased to celebrate the launch of a new report from Columbia Journalism School -- which, under the leadership of Nick Lemann, has become a model in preparing journalists for the future who are not just great reporters, but great, deeply knowledgeable journalists capable of explaining and giving depth and texture to not only earth-shaking global events but also the daily business of our work, our neighborhoods, our children, our families, our towns and cities and municipalities -- in short, helping us to better understand the context of our lives.

The report -- "Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present" by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky -- suggests it is time to invest in ways to move towards a bright and hopeful future for journalism and hence our democracy. It begins with the idea that the transformation of American journalism is unavoidable, but with the same breathtaking certainty, assures us that, when it comes to the practice of journalism, "There are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways." On each and every page, there is the recognition that whatever changes both the business and art of journalism face, today's journalism students, tomorrow's reporters, and all those men and women who have dedicated themselves to bringing the world's truth to their fellow human beings will succeed at their work because their work matters. Journalism matters. It always has and it always will.

Andrew Carnegie understood and emphasized the need for future generations to respond to changing needs. In that spirit, I would urge the journalists of tomorrow especially, to pursue their work in our new digital environment understanding that what endures is the need for excellence, knowledge and integrity from a free press responsible for helping people to understand what they need to know in order to become good citizens who fully participate in the life of our nation...and to become, like all good journalists, lifelong students of democracy.

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