The Future in Communic@tions Looms Limitless

Posted: March 5, 2008

Sixty-five alumnae and 25 students gathered on a snow-filled weekend at Mount Holyoke for two days of presentations and discussions about the present and future of communications. The event, a collaboration between the Alumnae Association and the College's communications office, drew participants from a wide range of fields, including print journalism, public relations, and Internet publications. The Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts also played a sponsorship role. Regardless of their professional backgrounds, everyone agreed that world of communications is changing faster than we could have imagined. "We're truly at a crossing-point," said Bambi Wulf '76, assistant managing editor at Time magazine. "No one knows what's coming next."

Priscilla Painton '80, newly appointed editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and former deputy managing editor at Time magazine, delivered the opening keynote address Friday afternoon in Gamble Auditorium. Painton, who worked at several newspapers, including the Washington Post, before joining Time in 1989, described herself as part of "an idealistic generation" who had high hopes for the role of journalism in creating a better world. Over the course of her career, she has witnessed the demise of print journalism, with daily newspapers beset by takeovers, buyouts, and layoffs. At the same time, as Time established an Internet presence, she has experienced the "bifurcation" of print/Web news. Her talk, titled "The Future of Media: Who Will Tell Stories and Who Will Read Them?," examined what's good and what's bad about reporting news on the Internet.

"Breaking news is the coin of the realm," Painton said. "Those who do it well will survive." She believes that the Internet excels in this area, with its up-to-the-minute currency and ability to cater to specific niche interest groups. However, she warned that when journalists are required to do both print and Internet news simultaneously both efforts suffer, because it is difficult to answer the immediate deadline of the Internet while also working in the longer, deeper time frame of print news.

Painton praised the Internet for creating the "citizen-journalist" who can now bring important news to the public's attention. She cited as an example Josh Marshall, who recently won a 2008 George Polk award for his blog Talking Points Memo, which has broken several significant news stories, including the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department. But she also observed that the Internet's broad accessibility has a downside, providing a forum for the "leaker-journalist" to post erroneous and damaging information. Painton said the Internet can be a "free for all," where insufficient attention is given to deciding what to publicize from the seemingly limitless amount of material available.

Painton insisted that regardless of the speed and immediacy of the Internet, "big stories take time, patience, focus, and the old-fashioned craft of walking the beat." She believes that there is still a place for those stories and readers who will continue to read them. On another note, she expressed optimism that women will continue to attain more powerful positions throughout the media. She pointed out that women have recently broken stories in spheres typically covered by men, on subjects such as the Abu Ghraib scandal and secret CIA prisons.

Saturday Sessions
Saturday morning began with a panel discussion titled "Making a Living in Journalism," which was introduced by Carol Sliwa '80, senior editor at Computerworld. Panelists included Avice Meehan '77, vice president for communications and public affairs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Sheryl McCarthy '69, a journalist and columnist for a wide range of publications, including the New York Daily News and New York Newsday; Linda O'Connell '69, founder of the Valley Advocate, the first alternative weekly in the Five College area, who is now helping to launch the green series "Natural Home Living" for public television and other platforms; and Julie Sell '83, who has more than two decades in journalism, writing for the Economist and other publications, including the International Herald Tribune in Paris and the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.

Following the panel discussion, participants met in breakout groups for intensive discussions on topics ranging from PR and marketing to news journalism. Analisa Balares '99, founder of MHC's Lyons Network, an organization of women professionals and students dedicated to advancing leadership and professional opportunities for women, attended a discussion of technology and new media. She said, "I'm excited to be here. It's cool to have space and time for deeper conversations. It's wonderful when people in the audience are also experts and can speak from their own experience."

Students at the gathering enjoyed the opportunity to talk with seasoned communications professionals. Zilin Cui '11, a student from Beijing who wants to pursue a career in cross-cultural communications, said she particularly appreciated talking to alumnae "one-on-one." Sarah French '08, an English major with a minor in politics, said she "got a lot of great information and advice" at a breakout discussion group on public relations and marketing led by Kate Axt '01 and Susan Noonan '82. Her classmate Tori Kerman '08 was heartened to hear from so many alumnae that career paths are rarely linear or predictable, and that it is possible to "make the jump" into communications without formal training. "You can always find a way to do what you want to do wherever you are," Kerman said.

"Web Journalism and the New Media" was the subject of the Saturday keynote address by Elizabeth Spiers, founder of DeadHorse media, founding editor of Gawker.com, and former editor-in-chief of Mediabistro.com. Spiers described how her career evolved from a casual blog she wrote while working in the financial industry to launching some of the most popular sites for professionals in finance, law, and fashion. She has capitalized on the Internet's ability to cater to niche viewers in a way that traditional media simply could not. She shared with the audience some of her favorite offbeat sites, including "Stuff on My Cat," and "Crying while Eating," and "Spiderman Reviews Crayons." Describing herself as "data driven," she also praised the Internet for providing instant feedback from viewers. "You get a sophisticated analysis of who visits your site and how they use it. The stats show whether you're doing a good job, and whether the audience is responding to you."

Before fielding an animated question-and-answer session, Spiers offered her formula for launching a successful Web site. First, a site must have sufficiently frequent postings so that "viewers will keep coming back." While 6 to 9 posts per day is minimum, 25 a day is better. Second, she stressed the importance of identifying a niche and staying topical. Third, having original content and breaking news is critical to drawing viewers and having other sites link to her sites. "It's easy," she said, while cautioning that it's also "time consuming and labor intensive."

The weekend's activities also included two well-attended and lively receptions, one hosted by Linda O'Connell '69, chair of the Alumnae Quarterly committee, and Emily Weir, Quarterly managing director, for former, current, and prospective Quarterly committee members and contributors, and another hosted by Meg Massey '08, managing editor of the MHC News, for current and former News writers. The weekend concluded with an alumnae networking and career-building session followed by a presentation by MHC history professor Daniel Czitrom titled "Jacob Riis and the Twentieth-Century Muckraking." Czitrom, who specializes in American media and American cultural and political history, is coauthor, with Bonnie Yochelson, of a new book, Discovering Jacob Riis.

Rochelle Calhoun, executive director of the Alumnae Association, was thrilled by the success of the event. "There's an incredibly energizing atmosphere here," she said. "The exchange of ideas and nurturing is truly the height of the Mount Holyoke experience. You see the alums' ability and willingness to help and support students and each other in their professional identities."

Related Links:

Future in Communications 2008 (photos and audio)

Alumnae Association