Journalism is dead. Long live journalism!

BlogHer Original Post

A new report from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism -- the home of the Pulitzer prizes, no less --  suggests that government funding might be a necessary part of the solution for preserving independent local news reporting. The report has been greeted by reactions ranging from interest to skepticism and outright dismissal. 

The need to preserve independent journalism

The 96-page report by former Washington Post managing editor Len Downie and scholar Michael Schudson includes a concise and comprehensive review of the industry's evolution over the last 40 years. As of a decade ago, they noted:

"Newspapers [had] moved from a preoccupation with government, usually in response to specific events, to a much broader understanding of public life that included not just events, but also patterns and trends, and not just in politics, but also in science, medicine, business, sports, education, religion, culture, and entertainment.

"These developments were driven in part by the market. Editors sought to slow the loss of readers turning to broadcast or cable television, or to magazines that appealed to niche audiences. The changes also were driven by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights movement taught journalists in what had been overwhelmingly white and male newsrooms about minority communities that they hadn’t covered well or at all. The women’s movement successfully asserted that “the personal is political” and ushered in such topics as sexuality, gender equity, birth control, abortion, childhood, and parenthood. Environmentalists helped to make scientific and medical questions part of everyday news reporting."

The recommendations

The authors argue that the question we face is whether that kind of informed reporting and analysis is so essential to democratic functioning that it should be treated as "a significant public good whose diminution requires urgent attention?" The authors' answer is a resounding, "yes." After reviewing the range of existing and emerging business models for funding independent local journalism, they recommend:

  • Having the IRS or Congress allow news organizations doing public service journalism to organize themselves as tax-exempt non-profits or low-profit limited liability corporations (called L3Cs). This is similar to a legislative proposal by Sen. Ben Cardin, the Newspaper Preservation Act of 2009, which is currently under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee. 
  • Increasing donations from philanthropists and foundations supporting journalism.
  • That Congress direct the government-subsidized Corporation for Public Broadcasting to invest in local news reporting
  • That universities start news organizations and run them as labs for innovation. (For what it's worth, I've been in favor of that one for a while now.
  • That a government-backed fund for local news be established to support local reporting. To those who fear that this constitutes undue government involvement in journalism, they argue:

The federal government already provides assistance to the arts, humanities, and sciences through independent agencies that include the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. The arts and humanities endowments each have budgets under $200 million. The National Science Foundation, with a budget of $6 billion, gives out about 10,000 grants a year. The National Institutes of Health has a budget of $28 billion and gives 50,000 grants. In these and other ways, the federal government gives significant support to individuals and organizations whose work creates new knowledge that contributes to the public good.

They conclude on an optimistic note:

"At many of the news organizations we visited, new and old, we have seen the beginnings of a genuine reconstruction of what journalism can and should be..."

The feedback

Here's a sampling of some of the reviews.

Jan Schaeffer, the executive director of J-Lab, which supports experiments in journalistic innovation, said Downie and Schudson were focused on the wrong thing:

"In looking to reconstruct journalism, I’d start not by asking how do we get money for what we’ve always done. I’d ask instead: How do we provide something worth paying for? As a long-time news consumer, I have recoiled at much of what we are rendering as 'journalism.'”

Journalism student Paige Hansen said she and her fellow students are eager to help fill the void in local reporting:

"Students in the newsroom could work for both the print medium and the broadcast medium.  I think this option is a lot better than having the government financially support local broadcast news, even if Downie says, 'it can be done with safeguards to ensure that the government doesn't become the yard boss of what constitutes worthy news.' " 

Journalism professor Michael Bugeja said the authors mean well, but they "gloss over" the fact that technology is no substitute for experienced shoe-leather reporting:

"Technology surveils and sells; without reporters on the street, where the disenfranchised dwell--from homeless to HUD--you get surface reporting. The solution? Try hiring more investigative reporters who can file online or in print; the platform doesn't matter. The training, however, does."

Jeff Jarvis said the call for government support was "dangerous," adding:

"Just because newspapers put themselves at risk, it does not follow that journalism is at risk. Newspapers no longer own journalism. As too often happens in this discussion, they focus only on the revenue side of the business ledger of news – advertising falling from monopolistic heights – and not on the cost side and the efficiency new technology – and thus collaboration – that technology allows." 

But journalist Bernice Yeung says there's no reason to get into a "tizzy" over the prospect of government support for local journalism:

 "What I’m in a tizzy about is this continued insistence on a purely market-driven model of journalism."

The Knight Foundation's Eric Newton noted their report on citizens' information needs in a democracy revealed the importance of, "universal broadband access, digital literacy and greater news innovation in both the public and private sector."

Finally, journalism professor Michelle Ferrier criticized the report for its failure to address the needs of diverse communities. For example, she noted:

While the J-Lab report about foundation funding cites $128 million to news nonprofits, just a small percentage of that funding went directly to people of color for projects related to underrepresented populations. Of that $128 million, about 10 percent or $12 million went to one project called New American Media, according to Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab.

I think Downie and Schudson's argument for direct subsidies for local journalism is a bit thin. Yes, the FCC funds the expansion of broadband access, but the idea that its funding should extend to funding news content leaves me queasy. Government funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and specific National Endowment of Humanities projects are different from the kinds of local news reporting grants that Downie and Schudson advocate. For one thing, those CPB and NEH aren't funding watchdog journalism. 

Then again, government funding works for the BBC. What do you think?


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