More than 360 people gathered at the First Congregational Church, to hear the prominent radio journalist talk about his life and the future of the news industry.
Standing before a packed house, Ashbrook engaged the audience for nearly two hours, eliciting laughs as he spoke about his upbringing in rural Illinois, his many travels, and finally, his career as a storied reporter, editor and now public radio interviewer.
"I closed my eyes at one point, so I could hear it the same way," said Betsy Bleakie, executive director of the Mark Skinner Library, of the smooth, familiar voice usually heard only over the airwaves.
"The buzz around town was palpable leading up to this," said Bleakie. "He's so calming and practical, maybe people are wanting more of that these days."
Sharing memories of growing up on the farm that has been in his family since 1818, spanning seven generations, Ashbrook credited his parents with helping him make his way to the Northeast after they recognized his interest in politics at a young age.
"I never knew, when I came home, what nationality would be represented around the table," said Ashbrook, of his mother's penchant for hosting students from other countries, some as far away as Nicaragua, Egypt and Thailand.
Ashbrook would, himself, travel the world.
After studying history at Yale ("I showed up on their doorstep and said I'd like to go to school there," said the now-renowned journalist), and a decade spent in Asia, where he studied Ghandi's independence movement at Andhra University in India and wrote for the South China Morning Post, Ashbrook eventually became a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe.
"Here we are now, at a time of information revolution," said Ashbrook. "But the news business itself has changed."
Citing a "news jungle," of fragmented outlets for obtaining our information, including blogs, Twitter and the availability of newspapers online, Ashbrook told members of the audience the news industry "will become much more personalized."
"Sooner or later, the newspaper is going to become a relic."
The man who once introduced "a little-known politician named Ronald Reagan," has a long history with the printed word. Asked what he thinks about Jeff Bezos' recent purchase of the Washington Post, Ashbrook said he is "absolutely fascinated," by what Bezos will do with the publication.
The even more recent purchase of the Boston Globe, by Red Sox owner John W. Henry, marked the passing of the New York Times Co. owned former powerhouse, once worth over $1 billion, to new ownership for just $70 million.
Of his time as deputy managing editor of the Globe, which he left in 1996, Ashbrook said he "didn't want to be a high priest in a dying religion."
Perhaps one of the few people who could successfully get away with that analogy while standing in the pulpit, Ashbrook spoke without notes, frequently gesturing with his arms while talking, in a manner befitting his easy manner, matter-of-factly hitting each punchline, directed at an audience clearly eager for more.
The author of "The Leap: A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush," Ashbrook described his move away from the increasingly unprofitable print newspaper industry to a brief, four-year journey into the world of internet start-ups, following a year spent as a fellow for Harvard's prestigious Nieman Foundation.
Tapped by NPR to lead special coverage of the post-9/11 crisis, Ashbrook said he found radio "absolutely compelling." Initially asked to go on the air to relieve broadcasters who were exhausted from continual breaking news coverage after the fall of the twin towers, Ashbrook is now a well-known voice.
"Whatever it is, it's going out. There is no script and no editing," said Ashbrook, whose younger years spent listening to Walter Cronkite led him to gravitate toward the idea of "a network of people around the world."
A recipient of the Livingston Prize for National Reporting, Ashbrook has spent more than a decade hosting "On Point," which is broadcast to a weekly audience of 1.2 million.
Asked by a member of the audience how he prepares for the show, Ashbrook described a huge table in the studio where he lays out research on guests and current topics, crediting a staff of ten producers with helping him compile background information on each subject.
"It's expensive [to have that kind of help], but NPR is still willing to invest in that," said Ashbrook, who said he doesn't prepare questions, but instead follows "where the hour wants to go."
From his first experiences interning with a Republican senator, to witnessing Vietnam War protests and directing coverage of the first Gulf War and the Cold War, Ashbrook called his early years, "the days of great American journalism."
With Google and Apple moving into the radio world, and possibly talk radio, there is no shortage of the continual demand for news, regardless of what media form it may take.
The First Wednesday Lecture Series runs October through May, in Brattleboro, Essex Junction, Manchester, Middlebury, Montpelier, Newport, Norwich, Rutland and St. Johnsbury.
Lectures are free and open to the public. Topics vary, and are meant to be timely, timeless and thought-provoking. For more information visit www.vermonthumanities.org.
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