The Radio Television Digital News Foundation changed its name several years back to reflect the rise of digital media, but Thursday may have been the real milepost as the organization saluted Twitter as a First Amendment award winner. And while traditional journalists collecting their own First Amendment awards echoed salutes to the transformative impact of 140 characters and the technology that powers the 'net, the evening ended with Belo Chairman Robert Decherd advising/warning that investment in traditional journalism and its values should not be trumped by technology.
Decherd said that abrupt change goes with the territory. "How we adapt and how we make tradeoffs will have everything to do with journalism's media hierarchy. In journalism, reputation is everything." Decherd says that as "influence shifts to leaders whose intellectual roots are in science and technology, the most basic decisions about journalism have also shifted. But he remains high on the future of TV and print journalism, suggesting they "own local news."
"The Internet may be liberating and Democratic for individuals," he said, echoing the praise that had been aimed at Twitter's Democratization of speech, "which is its genius. [But] a simple and profound reality is that when it comes to news and information, a very small number of companies define the playing field."
He said it was important that investments in news and information at those new media companies be a primary, not subsidiary, effort. "We all need to work very hard in years to come to insure that the values and operating principles that have empowered companies like Belo will continue to distinguish journalism regardless of technology."
The Twitter award, the first of the evening, was accepted by VP, Communications, Gabriel Stricker following an intro that included taped praised from Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei). Weiwei said that no communication in human history compares to Twitter as a tool to help the individual and society. He praised the economy of 140 characters, likening it to the distillation of thought in poetry. He said Twitter itself was a movement. "It is very special," he said.
That came after the service was lauded by RTDNF chair Kevin Benz. Twitter's role in telling the Arab Spring was a "game changer," he said. "Twitter became more than a tool. It became a global source for information. It became a model for proving that speech, free speech, can change the world." Benz said 400 million tweets are sent every day. It took three years for Twitter to celebrate its 1 billionth tweet, today they top that in three days, he said.
Stricker pointed out that Weiwei could not be in attendance because his passport had been revoked, and called for a moment of silence--perhaps instead it should have been a moment of a cacophony of opinions--to honor activists around the world whose voices are silenced.
Stricker said the award was an affirmation of what Twitter is and will continue to be: "Your global town square....Many of you have risked life and limb to express yourselves, to make your voices heard. Every day we hear you and you inspire us."
Twitter has 10 core values, he said, but he focused on two: reaching everyone on the planet and defending and respecting the user's voice. He thanked journalists for adding a new dimension to the service by using it to bring people closer to each other in profound ways.
The journalists were repaying the compliment. Alex Wallace, SVP of NBC News and EP of Rock Center, was the presenter for the First Amendment Service Award to Lloyd Siegel, VP, NBC News Partnerships. But before talking about Siegel, she started by thanking Twitter for providing an "amazing" journalistic tool that she thought was going to change the world. "Now back to old school media," she said before turning to the award presentation.
Siegel focused on the NBC station partnerships and various platforms that have expanded NBC News' horizons. Those include so called old school media as well as Web sites and the "robust social media conversation for which we rely on Twitter significantly," he said. "What is the point of having a First Amendment if you don't do something really good with it."
For examples he cited unfettered journalism at NBC affiliates in local markets around the country. That includes award winning political coverage on Belo and Hearst stations, both recent winners of Cronkite awards; Gannett efforts to hold public officials accountable, including in Phoenix, where the company fought for a year for access to video showing that a prison guard had allowed a mentally ill inmate to bleed to death; Raycom FOIA requests on spending of taxpayers money, and investigative journalism on NBC-owned stations.
CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley added a note of caution about the power of Twitter--Crowley was the recipient of the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award, named after the late Washington chief correspondent for Broadcasting & Cable.
"Twitter scares the heck out of me," she said. "I look at that little box and all I can see is a message to myself: Candy, you are 140 characters away from getting fired."
She said she has grown to love and embrace and respect the First Amendment. "You have to love freedom of speech and freedom of the press and freedom to twitter [that one's not in the Constitution]," she added, "even if you don't like what they say, because that is how we changed the world.