Reporter talks future of journalism


The first time Lincoln Caplan visited Rutgers, he played for Harvard’s lacrosse team in a game against the University.

Since then, Caplan, a former staff writer for the New Yorker and former president and editor-in-chief of Legal Affairs, has written editorials about the Supreme Court for The New York Times.

Caplan, a visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School and leading legal journalist, spoke in the Alexander Library yesterday on the topic of “What is Journalism? You Will Decide.”

The first time he played for Harvard against Rutgers in that lacrosse game, the players used old wooden sticks made by Native Americans. These asymmetrical sticks were tricky to balance.

The next year he played in a game against the University, players began using newly manufactured plastic sticks, which were easier for players to balance making the game faster and more exciting.

Caplan believes this situation represents the pure substitution effect, which occurs when a new technology replaces an old one very quickly and changes the way the action is done.

The pure substitution effect also relates to the way technology is changing journalism.

“Between then and now, journalism has changed a tremendous amount, and this is why those lacrosse sticks are relevant to what I’m [talking] about,” he said.

Caplan won a Guggenheim Award and a Silver Gavel Award for distinguished public service and also served as a White House Fellow.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the very important court case, “New York Times vs. Sullivan,” a civil rights case where The New York Times was sued for libel.

The Supreme Court changed the legal definition of libel and ruled that libel needed to be treated and understood under the umbrella of First Amendment protection.

Caplan explained that the simplest way to talk about the difference in journalism between 1964 and today is in terms of technology. In 1964, people waited for journalism to be delivered to them.

For many people 50 years ago, their news sources were as important as where they worshipped.

Journalism today is different because of new distribution channels and different news sources competing for consumers’ time.

“For anyone — whether it’s me or my 91-year-old mother-in-law or my 26-year-old daughter — it’s a choice about how we’re going to spend our time,” he said.

Not only must people choose which device to spend their time on, but also what they could be doing — texting, communicating through another social media platform or looking up news online are just several options.

Caplan titled the talk “What is Journalism? You Will Decide” because he thinks students will be the deciders of the future of journalism.

“You will decide what journalism is because without consuming it, without turning to it, without creating an audience for it, the audience just isn’t going to be there,” he said.

He compared consumption patterns of different age cohorts to an archeological cross-section. The way people in their early 20s consume journalism is completely different from the way people in their early 50s do.

The change in technology is positive in many ways, he said.

Since a journalist cannot possibly be on location everywhere in a city where the police are abusing their stop and frisk privilege, having citizens who capture pictures and video with their iPhones and report the scene through texts has redefined modern journalism.

Technology also allows people in New Brunswick to follow a developing story in China, he noted. This was once impossible because consumers were dependent on a big news organization to bring the information back and package it up before distributing it.

John Pavlik, a professor in the School of Communication and Information, asked Caplan what the future of journalism looks like as well as the future of journalism jobs for students.

Caplan argued though journalism has been changing extensively, this is the best time to enter the field because young people are getting to run the show sooner than they would have.

Jack Bratich, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, said Caplan’s talk was one of four to be hosted by the School of Communication and Information. The school is bringing speakers to discuss their thoughts on the present and future of journalism.

“We hope that students will be inspired by the perspective of an accomplished member of the profession, as well as get some important practical tips about their future,” Bratich said in an email.

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