Shaping The Future of Media

Pat Mitchell is on a mission. While the president and chief executive of the Paley Center for Media does not pretend to know exactly how the media landscape will evolve in coming years, she is doing her best to make sure her New York-based organization is the place where that future is discussed and, as much as possible, shaped. Key to reaching that end is the recognition that a method had to be found to address a media landscape in continual evolution.Mitchell, a  speaker at DLDwomen July 11-12, wants the discussion about that evolution – whether it concerns the role of citizen journalism or pay walls at newspaper websites – to take place at the Paley Center, which also has offices in Los Angeles. While this includes what Mitchell calls “convening conversations” with top journalists and executives across all media, it does not stop there.

“We get the thought leaders here, but the center is also the place where ideas are incubated and where entrepreneurs can come to start a new conversation,” says Mitchell. “One of our unique aspects is that we can bring the leaders of what we’d call old media and put them in a room with new media ventures. The head of Fox news can connect with the young entrepreneurs that have a new media idea.”

To facilitate that connection, the Center organizes a quarterly gathering called Next Big Thing where new media companies have six minutes to make a presentation to an audience that votes on who they think will be, well, the next big thing. The event – attended by investors, big media companies and anybody who has paid to be a member of the Center – has been described as part elevator pitches, part open debate and part cocktail conversation.

Next Big Thing travels, with a recent event being held in Madrid, is organized by the Center’s Media Council, a forum where top-level media executives have been meeting peers for the past 15 years to discuss challenges facing their industry. The Media Council has almost 100 members representing two dozen countries and meets twice a year, once in New York or Los Angeles and the other time outside the United States, with past events having been held in Berlin, London, Paris, Johannesburg, Istanbul and New Delhi.

“Whether it’s about the print world or new video content online, we have become the center for all conversations about media,” says Mitchell.

What at first sounds like bravado has been backed up by Mitchell’s successful stewardship of the Center since taking the helm six years ago. Newsweek named Mitchell, who has a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Georgia, to its 2011 list of “150 Women Who Shake the World.”

Mitchell began shaking things up at the Paley center following a seven-year stint as the first female president and chief executive of the Public Broadcasting Service, the partially government-funded media company. At PBS she spearheaded the organization’s adaption to the digital age. This included overseeing the move to digital broadcasting from analog and helping turn the PBS website into one of the most visited on the Internet.

Her journalism career started right out of university at a magazine. She quickly jumped to television, spending time at three broadcast networks and several cable channels. At the television channels she worked as a reporter, news anchor, talk-show host, White House correspondent, producer and executive. She created an independent production company in the mid-1980s and became the first woman to nationally syndicate her own show. Later, as an executive producer for Ted Turner’s cable networks, her productions won 37 Emmys and received two Academy Award nominations.

One of the ways she has made her mark on the Paley Center, which she joined in 2006, is through a rebranding effort. The Mitchell-led name change at the Center took inspiration from a previous rebranding. What would become the Paley Center was born in 1976 as the Museum of Broadcasting. Today the center remains faithful to its roots as a museum and still contains almost 150,000 television and radio programs and advertisements that can be viewed in both the New York and Los Angeles buildings.

In 1991 the name changed to the Museum of Television and Radio to recognize the fact that programs were no longer only broadcast, but also transmitted by cable and satellite. The name changed again in 2007, under Mitchell’s watch, “to better reflect the institution’s evolution to a center that illuminates the immense and growing impact of media on our lives, culture and society,” according to the Center’s website.

It is a recognition of the massive impact the Internet has had on media, something Mitchell lived firsthand during her career in the news business. Though no longer reporting or producing, she spends time leading the discussion about how journalism can adapt to the digital age, which has opened countless opportunities but has also created a myriad of challenges that have already laid waste to numerous news organizations.

“The trend towards getting news when, how and where we want it is irreversible and it’s best we accept that because there is no going back,” says Mitchell who most days reads The New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and The Economist. She also peruses The Washington Post several times a week and finds time to read The Huffington Post as well as many bloggers.

Mitchell says bloggers, sometimes called citizen journalists when they play the role of untrained nn-professional journalists, though an important part of the media landscape cannot be expected to replace professional reporters who bring a combination of experience and integrity people expect from mainstream news organizations. Perhaps not a surprising comment from somebody who had a long career at mainstream news organizations and now runs an organization dedicated to promoting the importance of the media, but Mitchell is under no illusions about the challenges facing the industry and the increasing role citizen journalists will play.

“We are struggling to find the balance between professional journalism and the access provided by the Internet,” says Mitchell.

“Every time we have a session on journalism this comes up. When I worked for CBS there were bureaus in almost every capital of the world and now I don’t think there is a single one. When I was at CNN the network had hundreds of journalists around the world and they too have scaled back radically, meaning you parachute reporters in when something big happens, but you are also going to have citizen journalists contributing an important part of the picture too. Citizen journalists are able sometimes to be where news outlet don’t have anybody, but we have to set up support systems for journalism that allow trained journalists to be on the ground because they are critical to having an informed world.”

She argues that there should be government support in every country for at least one media enterprise that is “not reliant on the market place,” by which she means is free to lose money pursuing the higher goal of top-quality journalism. Funding could come from foundations and private companies, she says.

Another topic often discussed at the Center is what the right model is to ensure the survival of newspapers at a time when the growth in online advertising sales has slowed and newspapers are struggling to make pay walls work with consumers who have grown used to getting news online for free.

“I believe people will pay for what they think there is value in and The New York Times has proven you can get people to pay even for something that used to be free,” Mitchell says, referring to the newspaper’s decision to erect a pay wall. “This is all part of the shakeout. Every time there is a transformation it leads to a period of flux in which everybody tries to understand the business model. Everybody thought TV would die, but it’s thriving. It has changed and people consume it in different ways, but it’s thriving.”

If the Paley Center succeeds in its mission, all media – including professional journalism — will  find a way to flourish, transformed but ultimately triumphant.