Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Futurist's Future

"[W]e must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge -- not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can rise. Think of the lives that this would change.... A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday's strangest dreams are today's headlines and change is getting swifter every moment."

-- President Lydon B. Johnson, signing the Public Broadcasting Act on Nov. 7, 1967.

NPRThis "Futurist" is a little behind the times in reporting some news about my own future: Next month I am leaving GOVERNING and CQ Inc. to join what I already consider to be the "great network for knowledge" that LBJ promised this country would build 42 years ago. As NPR's new managing editor for digital news, I will help lead the online efforts of what Fast Company has rightly called "the country's brainiest, brawniest news-gathering giant" and the "most successful hybrid of old and new media."

Why public radio? One of my new bosses, Executive Editor Dick Meyer, summed it up for me in that same Fast Company article:

"Part of our desire to bring more NPR to more people is that, with the evisceration of commercial journalism, there's a dire need for it. Major mainstream stories are increasingly going uncovered. And I think it might be the nonprofit journalism world that meets that huge market need, which is also a basic need of a democratic society and an information-based economy."

NPR also is a great organization, filled with friends, former co-workers and colleagues and many of the best journalists in the business.

Chief Executive Vivian Schiller spoke at the National Press Club a few months ago about the "disruptive challenges" affecting all media. She also explained NPR's need to preserve its standards and personality ("the quality we call internally our NPR-ness") while continuing to "branch out into other platforms" -- making sure public radio is serving its best work to a growing audience "however they choose to consume it, not the way we want them to consume it." Among the related priorities the former New York Times executive outlined: increasing collaboration across the public media system, including radio, TV, local stations and new online start-ups; stepping up the system's investigative output, nationally and locally; and engaging and interacting with the audience.

Vivian also alluded to President Johnson's prescient 1967 statement about the need to build a multi-platform "network for knowledge." "It's almost like they were anticipating the Internet," she said.

Four decades later, the most pressing question I see for all of us in media is how to navigate the challenges and swift changes of the moment while also anticipating and preparing for the "strangest dreams" of the decades ahead. The future -- hmmm... What a great assignment.

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