He will be giving a talk that will discuss the sweeping changes that have transformed the news industry in recent decades. The arrival of the Internet and the digital era have forced traditional newspapers and journalists to adapt to an entirely new way of communicating the news to the public, he said. "When I started we were still on typewriters, and now everything is stampeding digital and that has all kinds of implications," he said in a recent telephone interview.
Ashbrook's career has spanned the print-to-digital divide. His first newspaper job was with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post where he got the chance to cover the early, tentative, post-Mao opening of China to the rest of the world. His beat included India and Japan as well, and in the late 1980s, he was named the foreign editor for the Boston Globe. While there, he opened that paper's Tokyo-based Asian bureau.
In 1996 he left the Boston Globe to help launch an Internet start-up company with a college friend. In 2001, however, two days after 9/11, he was asked by NPR to start a program to provide additional and in-depth coverage to the follow up of that seismic historical event.
"I didn't know if I would ever go back to daily journalism," he said. "But that emergency was so enormous that I just answered the call and discovered to my delight and surprise that I loved radio."
The show was so successful that it has continued on long after the immediate emergency and uncertainty following 9/11 and the attacks on the American homeland receded from the front pages.
"On Point" is broadcast five times a week, Monday through Friday, for two hours, and features discussions and interviews across a wide range of topics, as well as breaking news.
With a background in traditional print, digital and radio informing the talk he plans to give next week in Manchester, Ashbrook intends to trace the evolution of newsgathering over the past 30 or so years and share some of his experiences from what he described as a "tumultuous time of change." Ashbrook described himself as a "serious, restless kid" after college, who traveled through India before landing the job at the South China Morning Post. What followed was a love affair with journalism, he said.
"There was and is no better way to get right in the middle of everything," he said. "It satisfied my wanderlust and writer's itch all at the same time and it was paradise."
But paradise has changed since those days. Foreign correspondents are fewer and farther between for one, as traditional newspapers have cut back on staffs and overseas bureaus. Technology has led to severe layoffs in many newsrooms across the nation, and newer social media "platforms" have ascended. But on the other hand, what technology has taken away, it has also given.
Readers can access news from many more sources with a few clicks of a computer mouse than they could 20 or so years ago. News is also far more interactive today - readers can post comments online and weigh in on stories in ways that were unimaginable not so long ago.
At the same time, newspapers and other media newsgatherers are still trying to perfect an economic model that restores the industry to more robust financial health. Sooner or later, some kind of reliable revenue stream needs to be developed that spins off the capital needed to support serious news reporting, Ashbrook said, but that day has not yet arrived.
First Wednesdays is a statewide lecture series sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council and hosted by nine libraries around the state. In Manchester, the Mark Skinner Library acts as the host. The lectures, which are offered on the first Wednesday of each month from October through May, are free and open to the public.
Ashbrook's talk will be held at the First Congregational Church an will start at 7 p.m. For more information, call the library at 802-362-2607.