Reveal’s editor-in-chief Matt Thompson: There’s a lot to unlearn from the “Golden Age”


Keynote speaker: Matt Thompson (Erika Rich/Knight Center)

The last keynote speaker of ISOJ 2019, Matt Thompson, said Saturday that while there is much to learn from the “Golden Age” of the press, there is a whole lot to unlearn as well.

“I was definitely told that the late 60’s through early 90’s was the golden age of the press,” said Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Center for Investigative Reporting (Reveal). “Yet, when I started to work for news organizations around the country, I more often encountered skepticism just after the Golden Age from our communities.”

“I felt that lack of trust seeping from the public everywhere I went,” he said.

Thompson said that every city he went to report had a different pejorative for its local newspaper.

“When I brought these nicknames to my elders in the newsroom, this is the defense they tried to arm me with: ‘we get it from both sides,’” Thompson said. “Both sides?” Thompson asked with skepticism. “You think there are only two sides?”

“And furthermore, you think that earning the enmity of everybody is secretly a long-term strategy for restoring trust: ‘if we just keep pissing them all off, then eventually they will love us again.’”

This is just one example of the what journalists should unlearn from the “Golden Age,” according to Thompson.

Thompson, who is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic, showed a clip of Epic 2014, a 2004 short movie about the future of news, created by Thompson and Robin Sloan, a fiction writer. It showed a dystopia where tech companies like Google and Microsoft rise as very powerful media organizations.

Thompson said during his keynote that the things that were happening with these companies “were treated as they were in a domain outside of journalism.”

This was a big mistake, according to Thompson.

 “Most journalists of the day “didn’t understand how Google and Friendster and Amazon were interesting and important to a news organization,” Thompson said to Ars Technica in 2014.

Thompson said that understanding the history of journalism is important to take the industry to its next “golden age.”

“I don’t believe we can invent the future by looking back but I don’t believe we can improve the future unless we have a genuine understanding of our history.”

Video of Thompson’s speech, as well as his Q&A with Jay Rosen, professor at New York University and director of the Membership Puzzle Project, will be available at isoj.org.