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The Washington Post publisher and CEO Frederick J. Ryan Jr. spoke about the rapidly changing world of journalism and the essential role of a free press in holding our leaders accountable in the Holt Lecture presented by the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Ryan, who graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in political science and speech communication in 1977 and followed it up with a law degree three years later, was elected to the USC Board of Trustees earlier this year. Before taking over at The Washington Post in 2014, he was founding CEO of Politico.
USC Price Professor Raphael Bostic, holder of the Bedrosian Chair in Governance, led the discussion, which was held April 19 at USC’s Bovard Auditorium.
“We are in an era of significant challenge to democratic governance and a growing, unprecedented level of distrust in democratic institutions,” USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott said in his introduction. “Nowhere is this distrust more manifest than in the relation between the news media, journalism and the government.”
Ryan previously collaborated with the Price School in 2011 in his role as chairman of the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Presidential Library board of trustees, when the school and library co-sponsored a conference on Reagan’s legacy during the centennial of his birth.
As a senior aide to Reagan in the White House, Ryan is uniquely qualified to opine on the relationship between the current U.S. President and the press. His theory behind the tense relationship is that, for his whole life, Donald Trump used the media as a publicity tool for his business ventures and personal image. However, as president, he has faced a different type of reporting for which he was not accustomed.
“The President, his team and his policies are being scrutinized and challenged, just as his predecessors were, by serious journalists doing their job,” Ryan said. “Accountability reporting is quite different from publicity. It comes with the office, and those who seek to lead must know they will be held to account. I think it’s something to which the President and his team are still adjusting.”
Spread of fake news
Ryan discussed the troubling emergence of fake news leading up to the 2016 election.
“New technology has enabled fake news to be weaponized, strategically targeted to achieve a desired effect,” Ryan said. “Used to move financial markets, impugn reputations, inflame regional tensions or influence political campaigns, fake news can be a destructive weapon. The ability to generate, disseminate and promote false information is only going to increase with advances in technology.”
Ryan indicated that the fake news phenomenon becomes particularly concerning when leaders deliberately attempt to muddy the line between facts and alternative facts.
“It’s wrong to conflate unfavorable news with fake news,” Ryan said. “There’s been troubling instances where fair but critical reporting by respected news organizations have been unfairly challenged as fake news. Wrongly applying the fake news label is an attack on the truth. It’s reckless and corrosive to our democracy when elected officials attempt to deliberately and systematically erode the credibility of news organizations because they object to factually accurate reporting.”
Earlier this year, The Washington Post added the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to its masthead.
Ryan noted that this is a time of dramatic change in journalism. Advances in technology have radically changed how, when and on what devices and platforms people receive their news and information.
“Everyone in the media today, whether at the Daily Trojan or the most senior journalist at The Washington Post, can expect their career to be about rapid change in everything they do and how they do it,” Ryan said. “Journalism has become a high-velocity endeavor, and it’s not for the faint of heart.”
The Washington Post has responded by focusing on being nimble in adjusting to technology, taking its content to the readers in whichever way they choose to consume it. Under Ryan’s leadership, the company has built a team of 300 engineers and created a digital publishing platform, Arc Publishing, which it tested out at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
In any given month, The Washington Post gets about two million readers in print and 125 million online. At the end of last year, 30 percent of traffic to the website came from platforms that didn’t exist a year earlier.
“We’re still committed to the print version, but our future growth is digital,” Ryan said. “Today, we view ourselves as a media company and as a technology company, and we believe the intersection of journalism and engineering will define our future.”
Students in attendance gained valuable insights into leading-edge innovations that are shaping the field.
“When I was back in China, the teacher always taught us that The Washington Post was one of the best papers in the world,” said Han Li, a Master of Public Administration student. “It’s pretty amazing today that I can hear some of the insights from the [CEO] there. It was surprising to me that he mentioned they invest in the engineering department as much as the newsroom because of new technology.”