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Gene Roberts' April 8, 2010 Acceptance Speech

Gene Roberts, the former long-time editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, delivered the following remarks at Long Island University’s annual George Polk Award Luncheon on April 8, 2010 after accepting the 2009 George Polk Career Award

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Brian Harmon,Director of Public Relations
Brooklyn Campus,
Long Island University
718-488-1418

The George Polk AwardsBy Gene Roberts

I thank you for your generous and gracious award. And I also thank your for this opportunity to share a deep concern. The concern is this – that we in journalism have not done enough, nearly enough, to make cutbacks in journalism a national issue. We in journalism know -- in a way that the public does not, that the last two years have been horrendous for journalism.

A long, quarter-of-a-century trend of smaller newsroom staffs and less news-hole escalated in 2008 into cuts we could have not imagined a decade or two ago. Every category of coverage — national, foreign, state and local — is suffering. In some cities, the decline has been breathtaking.

Consider the Baltimore Sun, which serves a metropolitan area of two million people. In 2003, it had a staff of 347, after several years of staff attrition. By July of 2008, the staff count was 285; now, according to a former editor, it is down to 133. Information is drying up in the Baltimore area and in the State of Maryland.

We in journalism know that most of America’s news is generated by newspapers and while the Internet has sped up the flow of news and its accessibility, it has mainly aggregated the news as opposed to digging it out. And when newspapers and electronic media cut back their staffs, more things go unreported and, thus, unwritten, and simply are not there for Web sites to aggregate.

We as journalists only have to look around us. More beats are going uncovered or under-covered. Reporters who were stretched thin three years have since had new demands heaped upon them. More reporting is done by phone and email and it is harder to get out of the office and into the streets and offices where the sources are.

The best of journalism is as good or better than ever, it is just that there is less — in much of the country, far less of it — than in the past. Some Web start-ups and non-profit news gathering operations are attempting to fill the gap, but the number of reporters they are sending forth is a mere fraction of what has been cut.

This not just a problem for journalism, this is a problem for democracy. What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon. It is past time for America to become alarmed about its shrinking news coverage, but it is showing few signs of concern. In an era in which layoffs have become commonplace, newsroom cutbacks are taken as just one more twist in a bad economic downturn.

True, most newspapers have reported their cutbacks. But they have not said, except in the rarest of instances, what they are no longer covering. The public picks up its papers and sees no holes in the columns and assumes it is getting what news there is.

Of course, it is not possible for anyone to say what specific stories are being missed. But we know that most governmental agencies in Washington (D.C.) are no longer covered systematically; state capital coverage is down – way down; and so is coverage of some our most basic concerns – education and medicine. And, of course, there are stories — almost certainly many important ones – that are going uncovered.

News is democracy’s food, and when it doesn’t get it, the democratic process is mal-nourished – even threatened. If we are going to come up with solutions, then democratic society has to understand that there is a problem and begin seeking answers.

Our journalism reviews are aware there’s a problem and report on it; but those reports, for the most part, don’t reach the public at large. That is a task for us as journalists on newspapers, television stations, and the Internet. And we are failing. And our failure is democracy’s peril. We need to do better. We must do better. The health of our democracy is in the balance. Thank you again for the award and for your time and attention.

Gene Roberts, the former long-time editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, delivered the following remarks at Long Island University’s annual George Polk Award Luncheon on April 8, 2010 after accepting the 2009 George Polk Career Award. The Philadelphia Inquirer earned seven Polk Awards and 17 Pulitzer Prizes under Mr. Roberts’ leadership.

Posted 04/09/2010

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