OXFORD ENGLAND — The last leaves were falling and the world was plunging into an economic crisis as journalists from around the world gathered for a meeting in England. The venue, though, was not a conference room in the financial hub of the City of London, but the ancient university city of Oxford, some 80 km to the west.

What brought 100 journalists together was not a wake for capitalism, but a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Thomson Reuters Foundation Fellowship at the University of Oxford — allied to a convention whose principal topic was the challenges facing journalism, and especially newspapers, at this time of rapid technological change.

Many of the participants — mostly former fellows — had left behind hectic newsrooms all over the world. But that was a big part of what the fellowship had offered them, too: A chance for working journalists to take a break from unrelenting daily deadlines, spend time thinking about wider issues surrounding journalism and exchange views with international counterparts.

In the past 25 years, about 400 journalists from more than 80 countries — including this correspondent, a longtime former staff writer at The Japan Times — have taken part in the 3- to 9-monthlong fellowship, which was started at the initiative of Neville Maxwell, a former foreign correspondent for the London-based Times newspaper in Washington and South Africa, who took up an academic position at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and then at Oxford University.

As the fellowship’s first director, Maxwell worked hard to establish this program in which mid-career journalists take a sabbatical from their jobs to research a social or media-related topic in depth and then produce a substantial dissertation.

The two-day anniversary event in Oxford was like a capsule filled with the essence of the program’s aim. Journalists from about 30 countries attended lectures and symposiums with titles such as “Moral Maze — ‘Good Journalism is in Crisis’ ” and “The Future of Journalism in Africa.”

It also featured a fascinating discussion in which former fellows from as far afield as Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, the United States and Russia explained how their domestic media covers such issues as the financial crisis and global warming.

Among the many things this revealed was how, though varied in degree, global warming is a hot topic worldwide — while in the U.S., and not just because of Obama, there’s a sense of change in the air regarding that issue.

However, one of the main topics the international journalists raised in the convention was one that is very close to home for them all: What is the future of newspapers amid the rise of new technologies?

In the opening memorial lecture, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, said he believes the world has entered a new era in which communication technology allows people to truly become members of a global society.

But he noted that the new environment brings with it challenges to the established media — and especially to print media. Sulzberger said the long-term financial success (or failure) of newspapers will be determined by how quickly (or not) their digital-revenue growth outpaces shrinking revenue from print.

“Bolstering our audiences’ respect for quality journalism must be an important objective, but this will require creating a business model that will pay for fully functioning newsrooms filled with world-class journalists. To accomplish this goal will require that we learn more and more about the Web,” he said.

Despite being the publisher of one of the planet’s most prestigious newspapers, however, Sulzberger found it difficult to provide ready answers to his own questions, including: What is the future of newspaper brands on the Web? What does brand loyalty mean on the Web? Will the Internet ultimately result in unsustainable newspaper economics — or will it create a new business model that will drive their growth?

“If I could give you the answers to any of these questions, it would make my life so much sweeter — or at least comprehensible,” he said.

In a separate workshop, Nick Davies, author of “Flat Earth News” (his self-described 2008 expose of falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media) and a regular contributor to The Guardian, said that while the old financial model of newspapers is said to be dying, nobody is quite sure how online versions of newspapers will be able to sustain their editorial operations financially if they replace print.

That fundamental uncertainty is a burning issue in Japan as well, since newspaper sales nationwide have been falling steadily for some time as more people turn to the Web for news and other information. Though no major Japanese daily newspapers have yet deserted print, in the United States the prestigious Christian Science Monitor announced recently that from April 2009 its daily print editions will end and go online, alongside a new weekly print edition.

Meanwhile, while discussing the uncertain and changing face of the media worldwide, former fellows also had time to reminisce about the program they participated in, and which continues to “give journalists genuinely international experience,” as Paddy Coulter, its former director, said during the convention.

Gladys Tang, a former reporter with the Sing Tao Daily in Hong Kong, echoed that view, saying that her fellowship experience widened her horizons and her international network of contacts hugely. “I met a lot of journalists from different countries, which gave me a much wider perspective on how journalism is being practiced in other countries, such as Uganda or Japan,” she said.

“I think the most important aspect of the program is that you can meet journalists from all over the world and realize you are not alone in your mission to do good journalism — which is very important,” she said.

That a year spent on a Reuters fellowship really can, and does, affect participants’ work afterward is clearly demonstrated by Yasuomi Sawa, a former Reuters fellow who, after returning to Japan in 2007, was inspired to start a forum for journalists from different news organizations.

“I started the discussion group because I thought journalists in Japan, especially those in the mainstream media, should have more opportunities to think about and discuss journalism,” he said. “At first it was a big shock to me — but an inspiration — to discover that such discussion and resource groups as the Frontline Club were in existence in Britain.”

Sawa, a Kyodo News reporter, said the fellowship experience had a huge impact on how he regarded his work as a journalist.

“After reading newspapers in Britain and talking to other journalists, I thought we could make news stories more interesting in Japan. Also, I was working very hard all the time in Japan, about 14 hours a day, but I realized it’s difficult to come up with fresh ideas in such circumstances.”

And so it was, after two days packed with interest and exciting exchanges and reunions, that the 25th anniversary convention of the Thomson Reuters Foundation Fellowship came to an end amid the fabled “gleaming spires” of Oxford. But it was not only with happy memories that participants bade each other farewell and headed off back to newsrooms all around the world — but also with renewed enthusiasm for the journalist’s role in our fast-changing media world.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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