Rex Smith of the Albany Times Union speaks at FMCC


News is still news, but the rise of electronic media means there are many more ways to get it.

Rex Smith, editor and vice president of the Albany Times Union, gave a presentation Tuesday at Fulton-Montgomery Community College entitled “Navigating the New News.” The event was part of the William Barto Lecture Series, named in memory of a professor at FMCC who regularly invited guest lecturers to address his classes.

“Even if you don’t read a newspaper or regularly look at the newscasts on TV, you’re consuming information. You are a media consumer most of the time you’re awake,” Smith said. “Seventy percent of the time you’re consuming media while you’re doing something else; you’re watching TV while you’re making breakfast or you’re listening to the radio while you’re driving down the road. And about 30 percent of the time you’re consuming media all by itself; you’re watching television, you’re getting something on a tablet.”

Smith said his definition of “journalism” hasn’t changed.

“My job as a journalist is to give you a true picture of the world beyond your own experience,” he said. “You don’t need a reporter to tell you what happens in your own apartment or in your back yard. It takes a reporter to give you information that you may want to know if, say, the planning board decides that the nice house down the road from you is going to be knocked down to make way for a gas station. You need journalism if you want to know what’s going on sending troops halfway around the world…a crisis in another country may have effects on our shores. What kind of pressures in the international economy are going to cause us to lose jobs here at home. I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to be ignorant, not to have important things sneak up on me and bash me over the head.”

Even though newspaper readership is half of what it once was, most people still pay attention to the news, Smith said.

“Six out of 10 people under the age of 30 are consuming news every day, but it’s a different kind of news,” he said.

Newspapers still generate most of the news that shows up on various electronic media, Smith said.

“You may get it on a device like this,” he said, holding up a smartphone. “It may be delivered to you on Facebook. But news reporting is done typically by newspapers.”

He cited a study done a few years ago in Baltimore to find out where electronic media get their news.

“[The study] looked at what we call ‘enterprise reporting,’” Smith said, explaining that enterprise reporting is seeking out important information, not just going to the scene of an accident and writing down “what happened to the car and the driver.”

The Baltimore study found that two-thirds of all the enterprise reporting came from a single source, and that was the local newspaper–the Baltimore Sun. All the TV stations and the radio
stations and websites were taking their news from the Baltimore Sun. It was getting delivered to you in many different ways, but it comes from the newspaper.”

“In print, we recognize that we are giving away a lot of our news to other media,” he said. “We present a lot of our information on…we know that a lot of that is the news that gets picked up elsewhere, and we think that is an important recognition of what’s going on in our world, because we know that people are getting news from different places.”

Smith said 78 percent of smartphone users will tell you that they got news from their smartphone sometime in the past week.

“A lot of people get news from their Smartphone all the time,” he said. “I constantly do. I get nine newspapers on my desk when I come in each morning, but I’ve already read the news on this (holding up his smartphone) before I get to the office, or on this (holding up his tablet) if I really want a bigger picture. People use four different technologies for getting their news. They’re using smartphone and tablet and a TV set and a radio. They’ll [also] pick up a newspaper. People who use more devices tend to enjoy following the news more.”

Smith said the last 15 years have seen a revolution in communication, both in terms of content and of economics.

“A newspaper’s ad revenue is what has supported it,” he said. “Typically a newspaper used to get 75 percent of its revenue, which paid for the reporters and editors and photographers and everything, from ads that sold in the paper. If you owned a store in Albany and you wanted to reach people in Albany and tell them about the latest sale in your store, you had to buy an ad in the Times Union. Then, of course, along came television, and you had to buy ads in the television and the newspaper. And then along came the internet, and how revolutionary that is, because the internet is bottomless. There is no end to the amount of space available, to the number of websites, to the ways you can digitally deliver information.”

The law of supply and demand has changed the economic picture, he said.

“There are so many places now where people can get advertising, which used to be the main source of support in newspapers, that now the value of our digital ads is less than you think it might be, so our revenue has gone down,” he said. “So between 2005 and 2012, newspapers took in about $27 billion less in revenue. That means newspapers lost about 50 percent of their income over a seven-year period. Most of that went to the ‘big five’ digital ad companies: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Facebook.”

At the same time, fewer people were buying newspapers because they could get their news digitally, he said.

“People started getting news sent in from all the other devices, so fewer people were buying newspapers, and so the circulation of newspapers declined, which used to provide the other 25 percent of revenues,” he said. “And so the newspaper industry is now half of what it was in 2000. It is difficult, therefore, for us to hire all the reporters we used to have. As a result of that decline in revenue, there are 18,000 fewer daily newspaper reporters than there were 10 years ago. Fewer reporters on the street, fewer eyes watching government, fewer people telling you the news that you need to have to understand the world around you. That means a lot of important news is simply not getting delivered – not getting reported or presented to people.”

At the same time, people are being bombarded with messages from all different sources, Smith said.

“If you have 144 million tweets an hour and a billion Facebook posts a day, and you still only have two eyes and one brain, it is an information explosion.”

If the information overload is scary, Smith said, he had one word of advice: relax.

“Decision-making becomes hard if there’s too much pressure on – and I practiced this word – your dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex,” he said.

“That’s the region of the brain that is responsible for your decision-making, and it controls your emotions. And there is recent research that suggests that there’s actually a limit to what that part of your brain can handle–that having too much information or too many choices, your decision-making begins to deteriorate, kind of like a circuit breaker popping on an overloaded electrical line.”

Smith then talked about professional ethics–how news organizations and individuals should do their jobs.

“The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says that the first thing we have to do is to seek the truth and report it fully,” he said. “I’ll tell you why that’s important. The truth may not be what you think it is. In fact the truth is not always so easy to discern. You may say, ‘Well, just give me the facts and let me make the decision.’ Facts sometimes don’t tell the truth.”

As an example, he cited a statement made by New York Gov. George Pataki several months into his first term.

“He was talking about how he had turned around the economy of New York State,” Smith said. “We had a reporter covering that, and I was there because I was supposed to speak later. Our reporter covered that speech and wrote it the next day in the paper, the governor said that he had turned around the economy of New York State. That’s true, right? Well, it’s true as far as it went; it’s true that that’s what the governor said.”

Smith said Pataki’s statement bothered him.

“It nagged on me a little bit, because I knew this fact: if New York were an independent country, New York by itself would be the fifth biggest economy in the entire world. And I thought, wow, that’s impressive. You might be a big guy, but to singlehandedly turn around the economy of the fifth-biggest economy in the world in the span of nine months sounds unusual. A big battleship takes a long time to make a turn, and it seems to me that it was unlikely, and I thought we needed to do some reporting to see if that was accurate.”

For various reasons, the story wasn’t written for two more years. But when it was, Smith and other staff members decided to compare the first two years of the Pataki administration with the last two years of Mario Cuomo’s administration.

“After two years, this is fair,” Smith recalled saying. “Let’s look at whether the economy has turned around in the first two years of the Pataki administration. So we went to three different econometric consulting firms, and they gave us seven different measures we could use to determine how the New York economy was doing: new home construction, employment, auto sales … I can’t remember all seven. We found that on five of the seven measures, the economy was actually better under Cuomo than it was under Pataki. So here’s my question for you. My charge is, seek the truth and report it fully. Which is the truth? The truth is the governor said, ‘What a turnaround!’ Or is the truth that the economy was not doing what he said? This is why, when you say to a reporter, ‘Just tell me the facts and let me decide,’ the facts don’t always tell the truth. Furthermore, most of us don’t lead our lives in shades of black and white and good guys and bad guys. Most tough decisions are in shades of grey. The challenge to journalism is to seek the truth and report it fully, and that means giving the shades of grey and not just good guys and bad guys. It means trying to find the truth, not just what somebody asserts to be the fact.”

The second element of the code of ethics is that a journalist should act independently, Smith said.

“That means a journalist has to be free of allegiances to somebody on one side or the other–needs to be independent in their reporting,” he said. “If you take a journalism course you’re learning some of the skills to give you that independence, and we have editors going through every story. The goal is to be able to hold to those professional standards so that our reporting is fair and independent. Notice that I didn’t say ‘equal and balanced’ but ‘fair’, because fairness is what we’re doing.”

But fairness doesn’t always mean a 50=50 split, he said.

“Climate change is a great example,” he said. “Ninety-seven percent of scientists engaged in studying climate say that man is having an effect on climate. That is not a matter of belief; that’s a matter of science, and so I’m not going to give equal weight in the newspaper to the people who denounce science. I believe science, and so should you, as an educated citizen.”

The third major tenet of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is to “minimize harm,” Smith said. “We recognize that sometimes our truth-telling will hurt people. If you’re putting a story in the paper about somebody who has committed a crime, that is going to hurt that person’s family, but you minimize harm. You don’t go picking on the guy’s kid and interview the kid in school and ask how he feels about his dad stealing money. That is harming people. We try to minimize harm, consistent with our truth-telling responsibility.”

The fourth element is, “Be transparent,” Smith said.

“You should know where this news is coming from,” he said. “You should know who is making these assertions. There shouldn’t be anonymous quotations in stories. If there are some stories that can’t be told without using an unnamed source, we need to follow professional standards to give you as much information as possible about that unnamed source.”

John Becker

John Becker is both a Reporter and Consulting Editor for The Compass. He and his wife Pat operate Abbey Farms in Amsterdam NY.