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Neil Henry steers a new course at the J-School

The new dean of the Graduate School of Journalism keeps his eye on the 'pursuit of truth,' even as newspapers give way to blogs and online media

| 27 August 2009

"Chilling" is how the Pew Research Center, which annually assesses the state of the news industry, described the media landscape earlier this year. Nationwide, the center found, "nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet."

Neil HenryNeil Henry in North Gate Hall (Peg Skorpinski)

This increasingly harsh climate, the result of steep declines in newspaper circulation and ad revenue, is obviously bad news for anyone seeking a career in journalism. Less apparent, perhaps, are its implications for those charged with teaching the next generation, in Adolph Ochs' famous phrase, "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor." What are educators to do when traditional outlets for reporting are crumbling around them, giving way to a brave new world of opinion blogs and digital news?

"We've had to adjust our mission," says Neil Henry, who's led Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism on an interim basis since mid-2007 and enters the fall semester as its first permanent dean since the departure of Orville Schell earlier that year." It used to be you could just educate students for a career track," then send them off to work at one of the nation's roughly 1,500 daily newspapers. Now not only are those papers retrenching, but the future of the industry itself is in question.

"You can't long exist if you're losing a million dollars a week, as the San Francisco Chronicle has been doing," Henry observes. "That's why its newsroom is barely a quarter of what it once was. And it's happening at newspapers all over the country."

Gatekeepers overrun

A veteran reporter, editor, and Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post and onetime staff writer for Newsweek, Henry joined Berkeley's journalism faculty in 1993 and remains active as a reporter and writer. His decades of experience in the field, the newsroom, and the classroom led him to write 2007's American Carnival, which will never be faulted for what editors call "burying the lede" — its subtitle is Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media The book is an impassioned argument for journalism as "the pursuit of truth," and a meditation on how to educate new generations of reporters in an age when the journalist-as-gatekeeper — credible, respected, trained to gather and disseminate unbiased information — is being overrun by a growing army of citizen-journalists, aided and abetted by the mainstream media's own failings on the truth front.

Not surprisingly, Henry today is still wrestling with how to cultivate professionalism at a time when the dead-tree news industry is, at best, on life support. Seated at a picnic table in the J-School's North Gate courtyard, he says it's a problem that keeps him up "late at night, staring at the ceiling."

"When you consider the hustle, the bustle, the chaos of information in American society now, the rants, the cant, the political biases, the advertising, the marketing that pollutes information — things that masquerade as truth but aren't — that idea of keeping your eye on the truth, and a commitment and a fidelity to it through an endeavor like this, becomes even more important," he explains. "It is not old-fashioned or anachronistic. It is absolutely critical."

In fact, far from trying to hold off the tide of online media, the J-School under Henry's leadership is riding the wave, hoping both to shape the future of journalism and ensure that its students continue to have opportunities to practice their craft.

Covering the region

A $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, for example, has enabled the creation of a half-dozen online news sites — staffed by students, with editorial supervision by instructors at the school — devoted to coverage of San Francisco's Mission District, North and West Oakland, West Berkeley, and much of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. (All can be found at The Local Report.) Other private donors are stepping up to support those efforts, set to expand this fall.

"We're starting one we're really excited about in Richmond, because nobody covers Richmond these days," Henry says." It used to be you had the Contra Costa Times and maybe the Chronicle. When the Chronicle heard we were going to be flooding the zone with about 15 great young, energetic, enthusiastic reporters to cover this important city, they said, ‘Wow!' So they're looking at us as providers of content."

At the same time, he adds, Berkeley alumni are "at the forefront of the digital transformation" at major metropolitan dailies, The New York Times alone employing a number of Berkeley grads in its digital operation. The school's Knight Digital Media Center, which Henry calls "one of the great incubators for digital journalism," attracts reporters and editors from around the world to learn multimedia skills they can then bring back to their news organizations. The J-School is also working with experts at the Haas School of Business and the College of Engineering to brainstorm new business models and news channels.

"Those are the kinds of tools, and the kinds of directions, that we're giving these days not just to our students, but to the industry," he says.

Complicating the challenge of revitalizing a moribund industry, of course, is the university's own financial meltdown. The J-School is a relatively modest operation, and Henry is searching for ways to trim his budget by 16 percent without sacrificing staff or faculty. But relying on the generosity of private donors, he says, is something he's grown accustomed to.

"Since I've been in this position, the university has always been in crisis," he says, laughing. "I never knew the salad days at this place, I never knew what it was like to really feel as if the state was fully behind you. Ever since I assumed this position it's been less, less, less, crisis, crisis, crisis. So that pressure to be entrepreneurial, to fundraise, to support the school becomes that much more intense."

And while being a dean may seem worlds away from meeting with rebels on the Ethiopian frontier or running a foreign news bureau, the job is anything but dull.

"It's almost like being in wartime," Henry says. "You are called, and you have a duty, and you are a soldier. And I believe in this fight, I believe in this struggle. That's why I'm taking this on.

"It's an exciting time, it's a tragic time,"he adds." But I do think Berkeley is in a great place to find the answers."