Sheilah Kast Lecture about Journalism and Social Media

The Washington Star Building (2893479361)
Image via Wikipedia The Washington Star Building

Public radio reporter Sheilah Kast said she is hopeful about the future of American journalism, even as the profession is changing dramatically in the digital age.

Kast, the host of National Public Radio’s Maryland Morning show, said the Internet’s power to open a two-way conversation between journalists and the public has the potential to make the news gathering process more transparent and accessible.

But she said the Internet also worries her as websites do more aggregating and less original reporting. She said she is also concerned that news organization may be determining which stories to publish based on page views rather than traditional news judgment.

“To an old school journalist like me, social media, blogs, Facebook, Twitter is at a minimum sort of a pain and actually pretty scary,” Kast said during a speech at Loyola University.

In her speech, Kast touched on the highlights of her long career, which she began as a “dictationist” at the Washington Star in 1971.

“I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the newsroom. I fell in love with the adrenaline,” Kast said.

Kast said that when the Washington Star folded in 1981, few reporters realized that the newspaper industry was about to undergo a major shift.

“We saw it as a sort of circulation problem, not as the beginning of a huge generation of changes in journalism that would really change the fundamentals of the newspaper and journalism in general,” Kast said.

Kast said she became a broadcaster for ABC News.  As a broadcaster, she learned that “the most important piece of technology is the channel changer. What scares my bosses most is that someone will pick up the channel changer and change the channel.”

Kast said that sound bites were shrinking because audience attention spans were shorter.  In 1968, for example, she said political candidates spoke for almost 43 seconds. By 1992 they spoke for 7.6 seconds.

“If I wrote a script in which someone was speaking for 15 seconds, my producers were pulling their hair out,” she said.

Kast said that television news was expected to turn a profit, adding that executives worried about audience size because they needed advertising revenues to pay the bills.

“Every judgment about what to put on the air was made in terms of what will hold the interest of enough viewers,” she said. This meant high emotion stories that kept viewers tuned in, she said.

Kasts said that as a broadcaster they had big networks, big teams and big investments which depended on a large audience. With the internet “a lot of that model started to crumble,” Kast said.

Kast said the Internet has fragmented the audience. Newspaper readership and revenues kept shrinking, news organizations faced layoffs and executives expected news organizations to do the same work with a smaller staff.

Kast said the Internet has made international news much more accessible to the public. She said it is also easier for young journalists to enter the field. However, she noted that one reason newspapers have suffered so badly is because they lost the lucrative classified advertising market to Craig’s List.

Kast said that social media honors the individual, adding that there are now many voices in journalism. She said that this could make journalists more in tuned to what individuals need.

Kast said that there is a lot wrong with the system but that she is “hopeful.”

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