Today’s post originally ran in November 2009, but is still just as relevant to the ongoing conversation about the re-invention of American journalism in 2012! Enjoy! – Liz
Can This Profession Be Saved?
I’ve finally read the synopsis of Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson’s report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism, ” in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as a number of reactions to it. I appreciate that CJR let the authors publish such a rich (30-page!) summary of their 100-page report.
Downie, a former executive editor for the Washington Post and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, and Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, provide their take on what has led up to the current sad state of affairs at American newspapers, and to a lesser degree, at television and radio stations. They discuss the approaches of a number of new media operations (and are generous with links to the projects in question) and suggest several possible new business/nonprofit support models for the industry.
Whether you end up thinking the authors are offering sage advice to journalists, or are off in left field, you really should read the CJR synopsis or the report. It’s important that those of us working in the media have a say in what happens to our profession in the future, and the only way to do that is to be aware of where we’re at now and what people are doing NOW to adapt to the challenges and opportunities the Internet Era has brought us.
On the plus side
The report largely accepts that Web 2.0 and the other cultural factors that have disrupted American journalism are here to stay and cannot be magically “rolled back” by industry collusion (think simultaneous content firewalls on all major newspaper sites) or government mandate. I know this sounds mean, but this is a good sign! I have been concerned about the number of journalists—including professors and veteran editors and writers—talking as if the Internet is something that must be, or even can be, “stopped.”
Downie and Schudson present a variety of options for fixing the current situation from across the business spectrum. They discuss multiple variations on publicly funded media, as well as foundation-endowed news projects and hybrid corporate/nonprofit news operations. By doing this, they are acknowledging that one model will not fit all in the future, and that journalists need to consider the context of their news operation or project when devising a funding plan.
The authors rightly identify local news coverage as one of the biggest casualties of the shifts in journalism over the past two decades, and do propose several ideas for reviving it. While local involvement and participation seems to generally be associated with our “bowling alone” culture, there are plenty of people who do care about it, and who now have fewer mainstream media resources for tapping into news about the community they live in.
On the minus side
I immediately noticed that there is almost NO discussion of the fate of the magazine industry, perhaps because that’s what my degree is in (magazine journalism) and because I have worked for nearly all my career as a journalist for magazines—either as a freelancer or a staff writer/editor. I believe that magazines had to face the decline of the so-called “mass media” far earlier than newspapers, after the death of “general interest” magazines such as Look, Collier’s and LIFE in the 1960s and 1970s.
By the time I was taking j-school classes in the 1980s, we were told that starting a magazine was much like starting a restaurant—if you know what you’re doing (business-wise) and can self-fund for part of the first five years in business, you have a good chance of making it. Notice that in that description there is no mention of whether the content (or the food) was any good, if competitors were using unfair tactics, or whether customers were reading (or going out for sit-down dinners) less and less. The focus was on establishing a niche and a business model first and foremost. Paying attention to the market, as well as knowing your craft well enough to produce a quality product, were also assumed parts of that model.
On a related note, Downie and Schuder make huge assumptions about the audience for news content and how they will, or should, behave. To be fair, this is something I’ve noticed over and over again when I read essays of this nature written by newspaper-based journalists. The report doesn’t focus much at all on what readers/viewers/listeners are telling journalists about how they’d like to receive their news, or what sorts of news they’d consider worthy of paying for online.
The authors even go so far as to proclaim that “American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment,” and wonder out loud in another section whether journalism is a “significant public good whose diminution requires urgent attention.” These are important issues, but this mindset, coupled with a lack of curiosity or genuine connection to one’s audience, comes across as preachy and pedantic—not the sort of vibe one wants to project to attract supporters to an important cause!
Finally, the report points out one of the largest challenges in journalism’s current crisis—we can’t seem to decide if we’re a profession best suited to entrepreneurial or philanthropic support. I like the fact that the authors include both for-profit and nonprofit approaches to new media, but the way in which they are presented serves to highlight the lack of business sense many of us in the field seem to exhibit. What is it that newspapers do? They’re businesses. Wait, no, maybe we should run them as nonprofits? Wait, maybe we can sell ads and get foundation grants, too?
Late in the CJR synopsis, Downie and Schuder use the term “independent news reporting” fairly specifically, and that’s really what they are concerned about, not so much journalism as an industry or business sector. As they note, “it may not be essential to save any particular news medium … What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.” (Emphasis in that passage is mine.)
It bothers me that so many of their suggestions rely on government intervention, although I share their opinion that stronger support for radio and televisions stations receiving money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be a good thing. I am a huge fan of public media; however, I also believe that journalistic enterprises can be successful as for-profit businesses. It remains to be seen how that will happen in the future—my feeling is that the “large public” that the authors seek to have journalism’s best work presented to may have already been replaced by a series of balkanized niches, each one hungry for content, but only within a narrow spectrum of interest.
Please use the comment section below to chime in about your reaction to the report, or the state of American journalism in general.