Paul & Hansen interviewed for The Information Advisor's Guide

The two professors talk about the state of news today.
June 13, 2017

Nora Paul and Kathleen Hansen

Nora Paul and Kathleen Hansen
Nora Paul and Kathleen Hansen

The following Q&A was printed in Information Today's The Information Advisor's Guide May 2017 newsletter.

It’s not news that we are in the midst of a very, very challenging time for the news business. Not only has there been an ongoing consolidation of news outlets, the rise of digital news, questions over preservation of online news, radical changes in young people’s reading habits, but most recently there’s been the fake news phenomenon—and, even more recently, remarks by the U.S. president—that serve to delegitimize the value and role of the press.

Throughout the years, two of our very favorite analysts at the intersection of journalism and librarianship have been Nora Paul, director of the Minnesota Journalism Center in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, and Kathleen Hansen, professor of journalism and mass communication, also at the University of Minnesota. The two have recently teamed up to write the just-published book, Future-Prooing the News: Preserving the First Draft of History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). The book examines the history of news preservation along with decisions that helped ensure or doom its preservation and the specific issues that each new media brought to decisions regarding preservation.

Although the book focuses on archiving and history, we could think of no other information professionals more qualified to talk even more broadly about the immense challenges facing the press and media. We had a chance to ask both a few questions on these matters. Below is a summarized excerpt of the interview.

What led you to write this book?
[As we described in the book’s preface]... the idea for Future-Proofing the News grew out of several concerns. The first was the attrition in the ranks of news archivists. With news organizations’ declining revenue, hard choices have been made about staff reductions. Over the past decade, the number of newspaper and broadcast stations with news researchers or librarians has shrunk. In many cases, newsrooms that had robust research and archiving staff now have no one. Who, we wondered, still cares about the newsroom archival assets?

Our second concern was the growing problem of disappearing web content that we encountered as researchers and teachers. ... The notion that “once on the web, always on the web” was clearly a fallacy.

In 50 or 100 years, what will we be able to retrieve from today’s news output? How will we tell the story of this time and place? Will we have better access to news produced in 1817 than news produced in 2017?

It seems like the phrase “fake news” is continually changing and expanding since it first became prominent late last summer. What is your definition?
Fake news is any content delivered from something that purports to be a legitimate news operation that has been invented for the purposes of deceiving the public: websites, radio shows, television programs, podcasts, newsletters, etc. They are all in on it. So are venal politicians who are willing to invent or spread lies to manipulate their constituencies.

What do you attribute the rise and attention to the phenomenon—what are the key forces driving it? Where are those forces headed?
All of the totally invented content that was churned out on behalf of the Trump campaign (“Pope endorses Trump,” “Hillary is running a child porn operation out of the basement of a pizza parlor,” etc.) brought this to a head. The journalistic and scholarly studies that explored how much of the stuff shared on Facebook and similar social media sites during the campaign confirmed it as a real problem for an informed electorate. The fact that Facebook and other outlets pledged to try to flag such content or reduce its appearance lent it legitimacy as an issue that had to be addressed.

What aspect of this is most troubling to you in terms of consequences and ramications from readers relying on that kind of content?
We now have millions of people with the right to vote who have absolutely no connection to reality. They are living in an alternate universe, and they are not reachable by science, rational thought or informed expertise. It is an existential threat not just to our democracy but to the planet. I am old enough to remember when “uncle” Walter Cronkite signed off with, “And that’s the way it is.” Everyone recognizes that there were huge problems with the mainstream media in those days—total blindness to so many issues, sources, points of view, etc.—but if anyone wanted “the news,” that’s where they had to go. We had a common vernacular of what was important, what we needed to understand, how elected officials were talking to us, etc. Those days are long, long, long gone.

From an information professional’s standpoint, what would be the most important and valuable role he or she could play within his or her organization in helping staff and patrons deal with this trend?
All we can do is continue to produce legitimate, well-sourced, carefully written, and responsibly disseminated information. There is no reaching those in their alternative universe. They are hopeless. All we can hope to do is reach those on the margins who might still have a functioning brain. 

What do you think of Facebook’s solution to work with fact-checking sites to flag suspicious posts? Can technology solve the problem, or do we need to look elsewhere?
They are hugely responsible for the dissemination of this stuff, but they are not responsible for its creation. Technology cannot solve the problem of people who are willing to invent lies and fabrications for their own malign political and social purposes.

The president has made a number of direct statements questioning the legitimacy of the press: its honesty, use of anonymous sources, the character and integrity of individual reporters and more. How worried are you about the impact of this on the press’ role and standing in the country, its ability to do its job, and how people trust the media? If you are worried, what is the most important things that information professionals could do to help do their part in protecting a free and robust press?
Again, all we can do is continue to produce legitimate, well-sourced, carefully written and responsibly disseminated information. Subscriptions to legitimate news organizations are up. That is a hopeful sign that people still understand that they need responsible journalism. We shall see.

Is there any organization where news librarians are still thriving?
Every news organization has gutted its news library operation in the past 15 years. Radio, television, and born-digital operations never had significant news libraries. The larger newspapers and magazines still have a semblance of a staff, but they are all reduced from what they were. And the challenges for those news librarians have never been greater. They are struggling to archive not just the output of the traditional news operation, but all of the additional “channels” of delivery, with little or no understanding from management about the damage that is being done because they can’t do their work properly. We will know more about the world of 1817 than the world of 2017 in 50 years (assuming we all aren’t under the ocean by then). No one in 50 years will be able to reconstruct what ... is happening right now because so much of the grist of the information environment (blogs, podcasts, fake news websites, etc.) will not be archived. I feel pity for the historians of the future.