Our personal investment in the future of journalism
I was privileged to serve as editor of the Chicago Tribune, one of the world’s great newspapers, for nearly eight years. Circumstance delivered me to this position in a time of crisis for our profession.
The history of media and journalism over the past decade is well documented. A wrenching recession, the digital revolution, changing audience habits and the decline of traditional revenue sources brought widespread dislocation and pain to our profession. But this also is an era that rewards courage, creativity and the drive to innovate.
While the last few years were trying in truly unprecedented ways, I always was grateful for the opportunity to perform public service through journalism and fortunate to work with the best news staff in America in my view. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not enormously proud of the work they continue to do today.
After I retired as editor earlier this year, I felt there still was unfinished business. While I no longer work in a newsroom, I still wanted to contribute somehow to help journalism make the journey into the future and ensure that public affairs reporting remains its backbone.
Therefore, as a personal commitment, my wife Jewell Kern and I are endowing the Kern Scholarship for Innovation in Journalism at Indiana University. In establishing this scholarship, we hope to plant seeds that will take root in new generations, just like those seeds that were planted in us when we were students at IU.
We seek also to memorialize my parents, Raymond Kern and Joanna Phillippe Kern, who were Indiana University alumni and believed in the values embodied in journalism and education.
Indiana University is the place where I learned my first lessons as a journalist. There I was taught about journalistic values and the profession’s public service mission. IU was the place that Jewell learned to be an educator and began her journey preparing young people to take their place in the world. Together the work of journalism and education play essential roles in the life of our democracy. Universities like Indiana stand at the intersection of these two disciplines.
Over the course of my career, I was given the opportunity to pursue this journalistic mission on a very high plane. Working with colleagues across five decades, we stood guard over the public welfare and held accountable our leaders and institutions. We did our best to ensure that the playing field was level for all.
Despite the ravages of recession and disruption in the media landscape, we invested heavily in investigative reporting, public affairs coverage and opinion leadership aimed at making the Chicago region a better place to live. The journalism we practiced was not driven by political or economic ideology, but rooted in a sense of civic duty because we too belonged to the communities we covered.
Today the need has never been greater for journalism that serves the public good in this way. There are millions of citizens in this country who want us to do this work on their behalf. They are people who care about what happens around them and actively participate in the life of their communities. They care about facts and truth and are appalled at the disinformation that is promulgated around the world at the speed of light. They want our democracy to remain strong and fulfill the hopes and expectations of American life. They understand the link between the health of our profession and the health of our democracy.
Our profession is in the midst of a profound transformation driven by technology and rapid demographic, cultural and behavioral changes in our society. This environment presents us with great opportunities amid great risk. We must keep pace with these changes while at the same time preserving the ethos of public service. We must innovate to stay vital and relevant, meeting citizens where and in the way they desire. We must develop new concepts, content and techniques that advance civic enlightenment, especially through public affairs, political, investigative reporting and commentary. The scholarship provides support for this kind of innovation.
The greatest challenge facing journalism today lies not in finding engaged citizens. The evidence is clear that digital audiences seeking public affairs reporting are large and growing. Rather, the challenge lies in journalism’s economic sustainability. The decline in revenue widely reported by many media companies across the industry makes it increasingly difficult for journalism to fulfill its public service mission. Over the past decade, the number of journalists at U.S. newspapers and their websites, which perform the bulk of public affairs reporting in this country, has plummeted from 55,000 to 35,000. We must find new ways to pay for and convey journalism to these audiences. Research and experimentation in new models is one of the aims of this scholarship.
The Kern Scholarship honors my parents, who were killed in a private plane crash in 1975 when my career was just beginning.
Raymond Kern and Joanna Phillippe Kern graduated from Indiana University in the early 1940s and were the first in their families to attend college. My father was an accomplished research chemist, aviation enthusiast and business entrepreneur. My mother was a gifted musician, teacher, arts patron and lover of animals. They were self-made and set high expectations for themselves, for me and for my brother and sister.
When I was growing up, they instilled in me the values of education, hard work, critical thinking, love of the arts, respect for science and curiosity about the larger world. These lessons ultimately led me to journalism. As Jewell and I were starting our marriage and our careers, they offered love, friendship, guidance and encouragement.
We remember them now for what they gave us and through this scholarship, we pass it along.