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Legendary journalist sees hope in struggling news industry

Renowned investigative reporter Lowell Bergman said that the business crisis in the news industry was not unprecedented, and that quality news would continue to be produced. The comments came at last Friday’s convocation titled, “The Future of News.”

“Technology has always disrupted business models,” Bergman said, “In the 1960’s after phototype technology displaced hundreds of union workers, everyone thought the labor clashes would destroy the press. Instead, it led to hundreds of alternative publications.”

Bergman is a correspondent for the PBS documentary series Frontline and a professor at the California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. In 2004, he produced a comprehensive program on the state of the news industry speaking with news organizations, journalists, and executives across the country.

“The era of news organizations operating as for-profit businesses like Wall Street banks or fast food chains is over,” Bergman said, “In-depth reporting is a different type of commodity.”

Bergman argued that while major news organizations have abandoned investigative teams, good reporting will continue to thrive in non-profit models. In-depth reporting is too costly for businesses devoted to profit, which have turned instead to less expensive commentary and editorializing.

Newspapers across the country have struggled to turn profits amid online advertising challenges. Classified ads, a long staple of newspaper revenues, have been made obsolete by websites like Craigslist, and newspapers have yet to find profitable models for their websites. Last week the New York Times announced it would again charge for its online content starting in 2011.

Bergman is familiar with successful non-profit journalism organizations. He co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977, which has since supported hundreds of reports, reached millions of people through broadcast and print, and last year surpassed all major newspapers, housing the largest investigative reporting unit in the state of California.

While non-profit journalism is not reaching the audiences of cable news outlets or major metropolitan daily newspapers, Bergman said that enough people read the reports to maintain some level of accountability in government and societal power structures generally.

The convocation was filled with both insights on the future of news and anecdotes from four decades in journalism. Starting in the late 1960’s he served as a reporter for a weekly paper in San Diego, an editor for Rolling Stone, and for ten years, an investigative correspondent for the New York Times. His reporting has amassed nearly every major award in print and broadcast news. Working with his students, the New York Times and Frontline, Bergman reported award-winning investigations of the credit card business and worker safety in the iron foundry industry.

Bergman won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, awarded to the New York Times in 2004 for “A Dangerous Business,” which detailed a record of egregious worker safety violations coupled with the systematic violation of environmental laws in the iron sewer and water pipe industry. That story, which appeared as both a print series and a documentary, is the only winner of the Pulitzer Prize to also be acknowledged with every major award in broadcasting.

In 1983, after rising to Director of Investigative Reporting at ABC News, Bergman joined CBS as a producer for the weekly news magazine “60 Minutes.” In 14 years he produced more than 50 stories on subjects ranging from organized crime and international arms and drug trafficking, to terrorism, and corporate crime. The story of his investigation of the tobacco industry for 60 Minutes was chronicled in the Academy Award nominated feature film “The Insider”. Al Pacino portrayed Bergman in the film.

Bergman told the audience that the future of investigative reporting was mainly in the hands of ambitious young people who are willing to produce meaningful work, while making relatively little money.

“There’s no doubt it’s a tough industry. If someone with a masters degree from journalism school works for five years, he or she will likely make about as much as a United States postal worker. The only difference,” Bergman said, “is that the postal worker will have benefits.”

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