The Future of Journalism

Will Saletan ’87, Swarthmore alum and Slate Magazine columnist, discussed the future of journalism with students last night in a talk sponsored by Career Services. Saletan began by relating anecdotes from the years he spent working to establish a foothold in journalism, before transitioning the discussion to the upheaval that the field is undergoing, and suggesting ways enterprising students could capitalize.

“Never,” said Saletan, “has there been a greater potential for a journalist’s talent to shine through.”

Saletan acknowledged at the start of the lecture that, given the state of most major papers, a talk entitled “The Future of Journalism” seemed “almost contradictory.” But for the rest of the evening, Saletan worked to dispel the notion that the changes undergoing journalism were entirely negative, and argued that the new state of journalism simply required “journalists to become entrepreneurs.” He depicted a future for journalism where job title and particular specialization held little value, compared to the ability to entertain readers and develope brand loyalty.

“You have freedom, but you still have to respect the market,” Saletan said.

He mentioned that he intersperses “candy” articles, such as ones including sex and scandal, with serious articles, to garner a reasonable amount of hits while still discussing issues of substance.

One of the most revolutionary changes to journalism, according to Saletan, is the phenomenon of sideways traffic. Because fewer people visit online paper’s homepages, but instead are forwarded to select articles via links and feeds, “journalists can no longer count on their employers to generate enough readers today to justify their paychecks.” As a result, journalists have to develop followings and work to attract readers of their own.

The problem with this, said Saletan, “is that the Internet rewards opinions, and especially the most incendiary opinions.” He was optimistic, however, that a core of Americans would demand real reporting, and said that his dream was that journalism would develop a business model like cable television’s, where people would pay monthly to receive subscriptions to a collection of online papers.

Saletan began his career when he took a year off between his junior and senior year of College and interned at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. The time away from Swarthmore helped guide his career, Saletan said, allowing him to realize he didn’t want to teach or attend graduate school. “6 months out of your life to not waste the next 20 years? That’s a good investment.”

Saletan writes for Slate about the intersection between science, technology, and culture on his blog, Human Nature, after having spent the early portion of his time as a Slate political correspondent, where he covered the 2004 elections.

“Journalism is for people with very broad interests,” Saletan said. “I have a great job.”


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