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Wednesday, March 21 News

Curry optimistic about the future of journalism

As a new era in journalism takes shape, many people are afraid the Fourth Estate is taking a turn for the worse. Many believe that citizen journalism, social media and the pressure for being first are destroying the reputation of the business.

However, one of America's best known broadcast journalists, and a New Canaan resident, has a more optimistic view.

NBC News' anchor Ann Curry asked a crowd of nearly 400 people at the New Canaan Country School Sunday evening to imagine what digital journalism could have prevented.

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"Imagine for a moment if the Vietnam War, Watergate or the Civil Rights Movement were happening during this time of digital journalism," Curry said. "Would as many have died in Vietnam? How quickly would the cell phone images of the Watergate burglars have been posted? Would members of the KKK have been able to keep their identities secret?"

Curry, the 2014 Richard Salant Lecture speaker, believes it would have been different, for the better.

"Maybe change is good," she said. "Let's hope, because it is here."

The lecture series, sponsored by New Canaan Library, was created 20 years ago to honor the legacy of Richard Salant, another New Canaan resident, who led CBS News for most of the 1960s and '70s. He is credited with expanding the role of television news and setting the industry standards for integrity.

Salant lived in New Canaan for 37 years before he died in 1993. His tenure at CBS coincided with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Salant was known as a defender of the news media's First Amendment rights and a critic of what he considered the media's excesses and failings.

Sarah Salant Gleason, one of his daughters, joined Curry on stage Sunday. Gleason said Curry's positivity was striking.

"I loved the sense of optimism she provided," Gleason said.

Curry went on to say digital journalism is just as powerful as traditional news outlets. During the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, for instance, she said her son "was riveted by the story" as he followed the news on social media and websites. "He was up all night," she said, and he was "fully informed about the developments as they happened." Her son did not once turn on the television or look at any mainstream media sources, Curry said.

"This new digital world of journalism, this new media that some people call, even in its embryonic stage, is taking down walls, expanding options, giving people more choices about where we get our news but also what we define as news," Curry said. "News is not just what newspaper publishers find fit to print or what radio and television producers have time to air. It is moving to become whatever people want to know about, however they want it and from whomever they choose."

Curry, who has 1.4 million followers on Twitter, said the change is affecting both news consumers and news reporters. The digital age, she said, "presents a whole new way to gather the news."

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After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, for instance, she was able to find survivor on Twitter who, hours later, was on the phone live with Brian Williams for the NBC Nightly News.

Lisa Oldham, the library's executive director, said Curry's lecture was "insightful" and very connected to Salant's beliefs.

"She really tailored the theme of her talk to what Richard Salant stood for," Oldham said.

Sunday's lecture was supposed to take place at the library but it had to be moved due to the number of registrations. Oldham said she was very surprised by the demand.

"It's always a real pleasure to see how people turnout for the lecture series," Gleason said. "I think that if my father could see this now, he would be so proud."

Curry said she was impressed with the turnout.

"I expected maybe 40 or 50 people. I didn't expect this number of people," Curry said. "This is clearly a very educated group, very interested in the future of journalism."

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the series, but there are at least two other reasons why Sunday's lecture was so special. Salant would have turned 100 this year. Also, this is the first year without Salant's wife, Frances, who passed away three weeks ago.

"Today we are missing the presence of someone who's been instrumental to the success of the Salant Room and the Salant Lecture all these years, and that is my mother," Gleason said.

To honor his legacy, the Salant Fund was established to raise money for the creation of the Salant Room in the library, dedicated to the study of ethics in journalism. Members of the lecture committee said the room was dedicated on Oct. 16, 1994, following a talk by Andy Rooney, the first Salant speaker. The Salant lectures continued every year since then. Some of the speakers who joined the lecture in the past 20 years, according to committee members, include Mike Wallace in 1995, Walter Cronkite in 1996, Dan Rather in 1998, Brian Williams in 2000 and Scott Pelley in 2011.

When introducing Curry to the audience, Gleason's son, Nathan, said the series have helped him learn more about Salant.

"I never met my grandfather but this event brings me closer to him each year," Nathan said.

Gleason, who's also a member of the lecture committee, said there will be other events this year to celebrate the anniversary of the series. In late April, there will be a cable news panel, and three other events will take place in the fall.

A journalist for 35 years, Curry has focused on global war and humanitarian reporting. She has traveled to about 40 nations and she has covered both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Curry worked at the "Today" show for 15 years before she left in 2012. During that time, she jumped out of airplanes and off bridges and planted the NBC flag at the South Pole.

At the lecture, Curry admitted this new era of information does come with some dangers. As the need for page views and tweets increase, she noted, the risk of inaccuracies also goes up. "But let's be honest, journalism has always been vulnerable to inaccuracies," she said.

"In the future, there will be those who focus on page views, or downloads, retweets," Curry said. "But there will also be, as there always have been, those who focus on information that resonates, that enlightens, that empowers. Richard Salant was one of those people."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter