April 21, 2006

Keefer: 'Messy Time' for Media

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Looking to break into journalism?

Just go do it. That was the advice Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s website, gave to a group of assembled aspiring journalists and other Cornellians.

“You should take risks right out of college,” he said. “The safety net tends to be there. If you have a great idea, go for it.”

It is the way Keefer himself entered the industry, writing “anti-spin” during the 2000 election run-up, countering misinformation and skewed releases from both the left and right during the Bush-Gore race.

He did this all, to some acclaim and thousands of daily hits, while working an AFL-CIO job that left him “with lots of time on my hands.”

He described the site, spinsanity.com, as a labor of love born of him and a two friends, a somewhat non-partisan hacking ground where both Ann Coulter ’84 and Michael Moore would get credibility checks.

“This was a novel, edgy idea at the time,” he said.

A little too edgy for his employer. After a spin-check on a liberal politician, Keefer was told to quiet his criticisms or seek new employment. He left, eventually getting the trio’s blog published as All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth. The move into journalism was a risky one, but one Keefer seems comfortable with.

“It’s a very messy time to be in journalism,” he said. “But it is also a very exciting time to be in journalism.”

He outlined the changing demographics and tastes of the emerging markets, markets which many of the established publishers simply do not understand, according to Keefer. He pointed to a Chicago Tribune editorial suggesting that university students be required to subscribe to a print paper, in order to develop lifetime reading habits.

“That’s just not going to happen,” he said. “The future is aggregation.”

He pointed to ESPN’s “SportsCenter” as a good example of collating today’s tastes: a broad breadth of news, mixed with analysis and kept at a steady clip.

More importantly, Keefer said, was that journalists become “format agnostic.”

“One thing might be economical today, but that might change tomorrow,” he said. Especially as one source becomes as easy to access as another, being able to pull the best content in the most convenient format will be a critical skill.

“What’s the advantage of reading New York Times coverage versus an AP story?” he asked. “Overall, the difference isn’t that much.”

The future will bring more choices to readers, he predicted. The greater diversity of sources gives new perspectives and readers a chance to read more in-depth on issues they care about.

An added bonus of the competing voices is more savvy citizens.

“Young people are becoming much more critical consumers of news,” he said. “We tend to know a commercial when we see one.”

That does not mean, Keefer noted, that traditional news outlets will completely die out in favor of independent bloggers.

“Reporters are getting paid to know more than you do,” he said. “When you go around them entirely, that’s not a good thing for people getting their political information.”

At a question and answer session following his talk, Keefer fielded questions on breaking into the field. He suggested skipping out on journalism school, opting instead to work your way up and earn some real world clips. He added that understanding how to use technology well will “be a huge asset for years.”

One listener asked if he though independent journalists would entirely replace the mainstream media.

“To gather news is still pretty expensive and out of reach of most citizen journalists,” he said. “Blogs piggyback on the mainstream media.”

Keefer was brought to Cornell by StudPubs, an umbrella organization of several campus publications.

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Managing Editor