Knecht Discusses the Future of Journalism

During his visit to Colgate last Thursday and Friday, journalist, author and Colgate alumnus G. Bruce Knecht ’80 shared words of reporting wisdom with members of The Maroon-News staff and students looking to go into journalism upon graduation from Colgate.

As a Colgate student, Knecht was a reporter of The Maroon, one of two then-competing campus newspapers. He then went on to attend Harvard Business School and Oxford University before working as a Hong Kong-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and writing for several print publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times Magazine and SAIL. His visit to Colgate was sponsored by the Cornelius “Laddie” Milmoe ’30 Foundation.

On Thursday afternoon, Knecht sat down with members of The Maroon-News editorial and reporting staff and shared his thoughts about how several problematic and controversial articles published in The Maroon-News over the past four years could have been done differently. He stressed the importance of including as much factual information and detail in an article as possible, writing interesting and appropriate leads and making sure that articles that include opinions are identified as point-of-view essays or columns.

“A reporter can write in their opinion as long as the piece is appropriately labeled, but they cannot put in anything that is untrue or anything that is inflammatory without a purpose,” Knecht said. “Assumptions should not be made without support. If a reporter is being critical, they should not use adjectives, but instead give examples so that the reader can come to a conclusion about the issue on their own. The article is much more powerful that way.”

Regarding an article published last November about the racist graffiti found on campus, Knecht said that there were too many quotes from administrators and not enough from students or faculty. He said he would also like to see follow-up stories on the muggings that occurred this February, and on the effect of the economic crisis on Colgate’s budget.

Knecht also addressed the difficult issue of reporting controversial matters on a small campus and dealing with administrators who want to censor what is said and written.

“You have to be fair, firm and reasoned,” Knecht said. “Reporters should not feel bad about reporting on what they hear.”

Knecht also suggested that The Maroon-News staff change their policy of allowing reporters to send articles containing administrators’ quotes back to the administrator before the article is published.

“Sometimes you have to do so, but The Maroon-News should not be in the business of going back to administrators with their every quote,” Knecht said. “Doing so gives them a chance to interfere in the reporting in a way that is inappropriate.”

Knecht moved from discussing college newspaper reporting to highlighting the current situation of the journalism field during a brown bag lecture titled “Journalism in the New Millennium: Making a Career in a Desperate Industry.”

Knecht began by mentioning the current reality of newspapers shutting down and going bankrupt, referencing “gloomy headlines” such as “The New York Times is living on borrowed time.” He then went on to discuss the Internet’s role in changing the industry and the various new ways by which people get their news.

“Technology has changed everything,” Knecht said. “In 1994, had seven employees, and The Wall Street Journal only owned one computer. Now we all know the power of the Internet and the possibilities of creating online publications for people to read. Politico is an online news resource that now has 80 journalists in Washington.”

Knecht also spoke to the fact that college graduates are getting jobs as aspiring journalists, but in ways different than years past.

“There used to be two basic challenges to being a journalist: getting published and getting paid,” Knecht said. “Now getting published isn’t a problem. Anybody can start a blog or write for someone else’s blog. Graduates are getting jobs because they are a generation that understands multimedia. That is the way the world is and it is going to stay that way.”

Knecht continued to highlight both the good and the bad in today’s changing journalism industry and how journalists are handling their careers accordingly.

“The function of editing has changed in the sense that there are much fewer of them [newspapers],” Knecht said. “Newspapers are now competing with the Internet and looking to figure out what it is that they can do that no one else can. I think their greatest asset is the ability to cover local news in a way that makes sense for a particular audience. Long-form journalism in newspapers is starting to feel like a relic because people have gotten accustomed to getting specific information immediately and when they want it. There is now more celebrity news and less investigative journalism. But I think writing books is a form of long-form journalism that will be around for a long time.”

To conclude, Knecht shed a positive light on the future of the journalism industry.

“The bottom line is that we live in a time of incredible change across the board. Whoever thought that The New York Times might cease to exist the way that we know it? But there is always going to be news, there are always going to be things to write about and one way or another, people are going to find ways to write about them,” Knecht said.

Senior Meaghan Haire, who is hoping to go into journalism upon graduating from Colgate in May, said she found what Knecht had to say very helpful.

“I think he had great insight about ways to handle the changing industry and about what opportunities there are now that weren’t there before,” Haire said.