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October 7, 2014

Dan Rather discusses state of journalism with Utah businesses

SALT LAKE CITY — In more than 60 years in journalism, Dan Rather has seen and learned more about the industry than most.

Having watched the transition from print-oriented media coverage to radio and television broadcast-centric reporting, the landscape of news media has changed greatly. And the advent of the Internet is continuing the evolution of the industry even today.

Speaking Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah at the Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, Rather described the World Wide Web and the digital era “as the single biggest change for journalism” that has taken place since his career began.

“It’s both evolutionary and revolutionary in somewhat the same way that we had a revolution when we began to segue from print to radio and then from radio and print to television,” Rather explained. “But we’re still at the front edge of the digital era.”

Each time an industry has a new revolutionary wave, he said, there are pros and cons.

Rather characterized the current state of journalism using the term interregnum — “the old order is gone, but the new order is not yet in place.”

The major concern for the future of journalism, he said, is how it will be financed in a way that provides the audience with quality, integrity-driven content in the years to come. Previously, media entities used advertising to generate revenue, but that model has not been nearly as successful in the online era, he added.

“Coverage in-depth with context and in perspective is expensive,” Rather explained. The best media companies formerly used some of the profits they made to reinvest into quality investigative journalism, something that seldom is happening in today’s digital era, he said.

“Now that is pretty much gone, and nobody has come up with a sustained model of any large size that can finance that kind of journalism,” Rather said.

Despite the current challenges facing the industry, he said he's still optimistic about the future of journalism.

Rather also noted that the measure of journalism and those who cover it is the level and quality of service provided to the public.

Commercial enterprises that report the news hold the public trust, he explained, and doing so with integrity is journalism at its best. But increasingly with the competition so fierce, it has become harder and harder to turn a profit, he said.

“The sense of being in the public service rather than just in the service of stockholder profits has pretty much disappeared,” Rather said. “What has to happen is a revival of that (sense of public service).”

He said the current trend toward consolidation and “profit-driven” journalism weighs heavily against the quality and integrity of the reporting that is available today.

“No one in the upper tiers of large (media) corporations speaks in terms of public service or of journalism in the public trust,” Rather said. “It will get turned around (eventually). One good man or woman at the apex of the corporate structure could do it.”