Welcome to Above the Fold. It’s where I share my thinking about contemporary media and invite you to weigh in with your own thoughts. My abiding passion is journalism, since that’s where I’ve put most of my professional energies during my career as a practitioner, manager and educator. But I also understand that it’s impossible to talk meaningfully about journalism without considering its business model, the technologies that both enable and threaten it, the people who rely on it and whom it serves, and the political and societal environments in which it’s embedded. I want to host a conversation that’s sweeping enough to look at the practice of journalism, the real-world pressures that embolden and endanger practitioners, the civic role we want journalism to play, and the ways that the whole indispensable enterprise can be paid for.
My own career in journalism spanned 30 years through 2001—a time that included five years writing a doctoral thesis on the politics of communications technology. I worked in suburban D.C., Wyoming, Miami, and New York, as a business reporter, business editor, and city editor of dailies that included The Casper Star-Tribune and The Miami Herald, the CEO and editorial chief of the Miami-based Daily Business Review (a Gerald Loeb Award-winning chain of business dailies owned by American Lawyer Media), and editorial director of Media Central, a New York-based publisher of magazines and newsletters. It was an exhilarating and satisfying career.
In 2003, I pivoted to academia, a pivot that included five years spent writing a doctoral thesis on the politics of communications technology. I spent the next decade as the Knight chair in journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, whose undergraduate journalism program is among the country’s oldest and best. I also was a columnist whose work on media rights and wrongs was distributed to newspapers throughout the country by McClatchy. In 2013, I was appointed professor and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, whose highly-regarded master’s program has for half a century nurtured some of the profession’s most accomplished practitioners and leaders.
The nearly eight years of my deanship were a fraught time both for the news media and for the institution whose mission is to replenish the ranks of committed and skilled professionals that the media need. While payrolls shrank and legacy news organizations vanished, the demands on practitioners grew ever more intense: It became clear that aspiring journalists need training not just in writing and reporting, but in creating images and audio, and in harvesting input from richly informed, but often treacherous, social media. They need a deeper understanding of how the media help leave some people marginalized and disadvantaged, while enabling others to grow ever more privileged.
Meeting those new training needs heightened the demand for educational resources at a time when public higher education faced an unprecedented funding squeeze and the competition for philanthropic dollars became ever more ferocious. Our ability to keep Berkeley Journalism thriving and robust, to turn out graduates who routinely dominate major professional awards is satisfying. Even more important, to preside over an applicant pool that continues to grow and a steady inflow of brilliant, dedicated – and increasingly diverse – faculty, has been especially gratifying. The need for news media that furnish reliable news is greater than ever.
I’ve now finished my time as dean, and will be returning to Berkeley Journalism as a professor. It’s an exciting prospect, to get back to writing, thinking, talking, listening—the core of what being a teacher is all about. Having spent nearly two decades preparing young people for careers in journalism, I also want to turn my attention to helping make sure those careers remain possible – despite powerful currents pushing against them. This means making sure that the values and commitments that the society depends on journalism to foster continue to shape the mission that tomorrow’s journalists pursue. We all face unique challenges: The institutions that once prospered by giving journalists livelihoods are either gone or tottering, and the public – whose support journalists used to count on – have been goaded into abandoning and even despising them.
Whether journalism will exist a generation from now as an independent professional practice is, sadly, an open question.
All that said, the fact remains that the public appetite, and need, for journalism remains robust. Careful, humane, compassionate, courageous, fact-driven accounts of contemporary realities, painstakingly assembled by people who seek to inform and illuminate—not to convert or persuade—is as indispensable to popular sovereignty as it ever was.
It’s to serve that mission that I’ve launched this site. My prior work as a columnist is archived here. So are my academic writings—I have been especially interested in such media ethics concerns as conflict of interest, plagiarism, whistle-blowing, and source protection. Whether you’re a journalist, a scholar, or a committed media consumer, you’re very welcome to browse that work and share your thoughts.
It’s engagement that will make Above the Fold vibrant and valuable. There’s work to be done. I look forward to sharing and hearing from you…