Real journalism in the digital age: looking back to move forward

Leonard Downie Jr.

The news business today may bear little resemblance to the time 40 years ago when Woodward and Bernstein were chasing down Watergate. But that doesn’t mean accountability journalism is any less important than it used to be, according to two journalists-turned-academics.

Leonard Downie Jr., longtime executive editor of The Washington Post who helped direct the Watergate coverage, and journalism dean Christopher Callahan, both of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, will address the evolution of the news media – for good and bad – during a discussion Jan. 23, at the Cronkite School on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

Titled “Woodward and Bernstein Revisited: How universities and nonprofit newsgathering organizations are filling the gap in accountability journalism coverage,” this presentation by the Cronkite School, in partnership with the ASU Foundation’s Presidential Engagement Programs, is the first PEP event of 2014.

Downie, who is now Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School, and Callahan, a former Associated Press political reporter who is the founding dean of the school, will discuss how digital access to news and other information means more access and more choices, but also means it’s more difficult to find and discern trustworthy sources. Both have been vocal advocates of accountability journalism – the kind of journalism the Watergate coverage represents – that provides a check on power.

The two also will discuss how journalism educators can prepare students for the rapidly changing digital media world, and how universities, nonprofits and others can help fill the gap in accountability reporting that is being created as traditional news organizations retrench.

Here, Downie shares his perspective on journalism today and what its continuing evolution means for the Cronkite School.

How has the news business changed since the days of Watergate?

Watergate happened before the digital age. The news media since have greatly multiplied in number, and their audiences have fragmented. As advertising revenue for news media has declined steeply, their news staffs have shrunk. And there is more competition for information on the Internet and social media.

Are those changes better or worse for the news consumer?

More choices and digital access to news media and other information from around the world are good changes. The unreliability of much of that information is a challenge for news consumers, who must sort through the cacophony to find trustworthy sources of news.

The title of your Jan. 23 presentation refers to “accountability journalism.” What is accountability journalism, and how do we know it when we see it?

Accountability journalism holds everyone and everything in society with power and influence accountable to the rest of us. It should be part of the news coverage of every subject. It is what will increasingly separate real journalism from all the other sources of information and images in the digital age.

How have changes in the news business affected the way journalism schools prepare their students  here in the Walter Cronkite School, for example?

Dramatically. Journalism students must become completely proficient in multimedia skills while still learning how to report thoroughly and aggressively, and to tell stories vividly, regardless of medium or platform.

(Callahan, in a January interview with Public Relations Strategist magazine, described the Cronkite School’s “‘… teaching hospital’ model of journalism education. Similar to medical education, we are creating professional environments – in our case, newsrooms and innovation labs – led by first-rate journalists and PR practitioners who serve as the editor/professor. Students are immersed in these unique learning environments for a full semester. The result is unprecedented learning, with the byproduct being important news content.”)

Without giving too much away before your PEP event, what opportunities does today’s news business offer to university and nonprofit news gatherers?

Collaboration with universities and nonprofits provides news media with more journalism than they could otherwise produce by themselves, while providing nonprofit and student journalists with much wider audiences.

Downie and Callahan will present “Woodward and Bernstein Revisited” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Jan. 23, in the First Amendment Forum of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, 555 N. Central Ave. in downtown Phoenix. The $25 admission fee includes parking validation. Registration is recommended, but admission may also be available at the door. Visit