David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent and Ayers Lecture Series guest last Thursday, is optimistic about the future of the news industry, even if he has no idea where it’s going.
There was a quote by H. L. Mencken on the wall of the lobby at The Baltimore Sun, where Folkenflik took his second job in the field of journalism. It read, in part: “I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It really is the life of kings.”
Folkenflik cannot agree more. He’s been in the business long enough—23 years. Even though he’s seen dramatic changes to the way the news is gathered and presented, he thinks it’s still about answering just two questions. “Two grandiose, but simple questions,” he begins from behind a lectern on the 11th floor of Houston Cole Library.
At 44, Folkenflik looks younger than his age. Before him sits an audience of maybe two hundred, gathered to listen to him deliver the 28th annual Ayers Lecture Series.
“What are we doing? And, why are we doing it?” he finishes. These two questions are more fundamental to the dynamic world of journalism than even the “five W’s”—who, what, when, where, and why—and their “distant cousin H,” or how. Folkenflik says journalists must perform a public service, no matter the medium they use.
Folkenflik also talked about seeing firsthand how much a medium can elevate a story. Although he began as a reporter for a newspaper, he said he made the transition to radio after realizing the power of the spoken word “in letting people tell their own stories with their own voices.”
He was working on a story in Anniston, and he decided the best way to convey the deep southern drawl and unique perspective of the men he was interviewing was through a recording.
In discussing the news industry today, Folkenflik pointed to some of the challenges faced by understaffed newspapers recovering from an economic meltdown. He talked about how a Pulitzer Prize-winning story from the L.A. Times on political corruption happening less than an hour from the paper’s office went unnoticed for nearly fifteen years.
When he questioned an editor at the Times about why they missed the story all those years, his answer was telling: “We simply can’t cover it all.”
NPR’s wunderkind media correspondent offered no prediction for how journalism will adapt to the challenges it faces. When asked what the news industry would look like in ten years, he answered: “I can say with great courage and conviction that I have absolutely no idea.”
According to him, anyone who says they do is probably lying. However, two questions he feels will be important in the future are: How do we produce the news? And, how do we consume it?
No matter the answers, Folkenflik says “journalism’s values remain unchanged.”