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  September 29, 2003

Multimedia Age Expands Field
For Journalists, Says Alumni Panel

Former reporter Patricia Bellew Gray remembers sitting down at a manual typewriter to write a story, in a hostile newsroom where the editor terrorized his reporters all day long.

When she later took over as business editor, another editor threatened to make her life hell.

"There were not that many women [in the newsroom], and those that were there were writing about weddings. It was very unusual for a woman to write about business, and I knew I was incredibly unwelcome," she said, during a panel discussion on "The Changing Face of Journalism."

The panel was part of a half-day event for journalism alumni Sept. 20 sponsored by the journalism department and University Communications.

"I began my career at a pivotal time," said Bellew Gray, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who is now president and chief executive of American Doctor Inc., an online information service.

Bellew Gray, who graduated from UConn in 1978 with a degree in journalism, began her career working for The Bridgeport Post.

"It was the beginning of a period of extraordinary changes" in journalism, she said. Since then, women and minorities have joined the field in large numbers. And a new type of journalism emerged that involves "stylish, colorful, you-are-there kind of writing". Features "once scorned as being for people who couldn't cover hard news, became front-page fodder," she said.

Other changes included the beginning of 24-hour news with CNN, and the introduction of color into papers, with USA Today. New ethics emerged in journalism after Watergate. And within the past 10 years, technology has had "an incredible impact," she said, first through e-mail and the Internet being used as tools, and then through the Internet's developing into a medium in its own right.

G. Claude Albert, '72, deputy managing editor of The Hartford Courant, said the Web has become integral to the newspaper in the past three to five years. "Now multimedia are beginning to become part of the routine business of newspapers," he said.

Another major change is in media ownership, he said, pointing out that he and fellow panelist Ned Popkins, '77, business editor for The Orlando Sentinel, work for the same company, Tribune, which owns both papers.

"When I started at The Hartford Courant, it was privately owned by a few stockholders and some employees," Albert said. In 1979, it was bought by Times Mirror Co., then by Knight Ridder, and most recently by Tribune. "Now there are very few independent newspapers of consequence left," he said.

Tribune is encouraging the growth of multimedia, Albert noted. The company's policy is "to deliver news in whatever medium people want it, wherever they want it - in the paper in the morning, on their computer at work, on the radio on their way home, or on TV in the evening."

Albert said multimedia "puts newspapers back in the 'breaking news' business, which we thought we were out of." For nearly 30 years, he said, newspapers were saying "How can we compete with TV? We've lost our mission."

Now, however, newspaper companies are also using the Web and television to communicate the news, he said: "That's refreshing for newspapers. ... It makes more of our expertise."

When there's a breaking story, Albert said, the newspaper usually fields a team that includes a web reporter as well as print reporters, and video as well as still photographers.

Popkins said The Orlando Sentinel expects reporters not only to write an in-depth article for print, but also be able to file a couple of paragraphs for the Web almost immediately and to appear on television to answer questions from an anchor. The paper has its own 24-hour cable news channel.

Eric Owles, who graduated in 1996 and is now senior national and politics producer for The New York Times online, said that at the Times, after the reporter has filed his or her story, there are different editors who "mold the product for different platforms." These platforms, he said, include - in addition to print - the Web, television, and books.

"The news is feeding so many channels," commented Popkins. "The final spin on the news cycle is when it becomes a documentary, often straddling a fine line between entertainment and news."

The panel also discussed changing perceptions of reporters' objectivity.

"Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show have set in motion the idea that news should have a point of view because it can't be totally objective," said Popkins.

Albert said when Hartford Courant reporter Lynn Tuohy broke the story recently of possible new evidence in the Michael Skakel murder trial, she was interviewed by scores of other media. "For a week, she was the most wanted reporter in America," he said, "and the more talk-oriented shows were trying to draw an opinionated response out of her. Fortunately, she is good at sticking to the facts."

Yet despite many changes in journalism, the basic values of the profession still hold, Popkins said.

"The story is still the concrete block. Everything else is tissue paper," he said. "It all comes down to a reporter with a sense of curiosity asking questions."