Giving up on the news business

Posted on 19. Oct, 2009 by in News Ecosystem, Public Support

Before reaching their dangerous conclusionrecommending government supported journalism in a report called the Reconstruction of American Journalism – former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie and Columbia journalism prof Michael Schudson make some basic and, I believe, profoundly mistaken assumptions, namely: “That journalism is now at risk, along with the advertising-supported economic foundations of newspapers.”

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.

As Downie and Schudson themselves point out in their Washington Post op-ed, there is now a flourishing of new outlets and means of gathering and sharing news.

Journalists leaving newspapers have started online local news sites in many cities and towns. Others have started nonprofit local investigative reporting projects and community news services at nearby universities, as well as national and statewide nonprofit investigative reporting organizations. Still others are working with local residents to produce neighborhood news blogs. Newspapers themselves are collaborating with other news media, including some of the startups and bloggers, to supplement their smaller reporting staffs. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers but also freelancers, university faculty and students, bloggers and citizens armed with smart phones….

That is a basis for a new ecosystem of journalism, one we begin to outline in our Knight Foundation-funded New Business Models for News Project. We believe there is a sustainable and profitable future for news and they only way to confirm that is to try to build it but that will not happen if we declare surrender and defeat in the hope that the market can support the news a community needs.

Downie and Schudson give up on news as a business and, in their consequent desperation, make this drastic proposal:

American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting — as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.

Collective responsibility. Socialized journalism. This is the ultimate in broccoli journalism: You are not only forced to read what journalists say is good for you but you are now forced to pay for it through taxation.

They make other suggestions with which I have no complaint: Journalism students should report not just for their professors but for the ecosystem and we see that beginning. If philanthropists want to do more to support news, I’m not going to burn their checks – but they are no white knights riding in to save the day. Public broadcasting can do more local reporting and we see movement in that direction from especially NPR and also public TV – though I would be loath to think that we should have government mandate of that. And we want more transparency; I belong to that religion.

All this comes from that dire assumption that journalism is dying with newspapers. That is not and certainly need not be the case. I disagree with Downie and Schudson’s key assumption: There is no crisis. When you start there, you don’t just reconstruct the past of journalism but see the possibilities to build a new journalism.

: Even The New York Times’ David Carr is somewhat incredulous.

: Mulling over the full report on my train ride in this morning, I realized that my problem with it is this: Downie and Schudson are addressing the business problem of news without doing reporting on the business.

The report is a cogent, comprehensive, well-documented summary of broadly held conventional thinking on the history and current state of journalism in America, but it is all stated from the journalistic perspective – no surprise coming from two distinguished journalists.

If this were handed in to me as a term paper in my class, I’d give it back for more reporting and rethinking. I’d tell the students that they made huge assumptions about the business state of journalism – both on the revenue and cost sides of the P&L – without giving me reporting on that. I’d advise them to look at the true cost of the accountability journalism they cherish, at the inefficiency of the business today as it produces commodity news, at whether there is sufficient advertising revenue to cover the journalism that matters once news organizations rid themselves of their inefficiency, at verifying the public demand for the kind of journalism they think the public needs, and at the issues journalism has had with trust and quality. Then, if they still came to the same conclusions – which I doubt – I’d urge them to get more balanced reporting on the risks behind each of their recommendations, particularly involving government subsidies, direct funding, and mandates on journalism. I think they did half the story, the half we’ve already heard (and which they quite ably summarize again). They should have given us the business story since that is what they really wanted to address. I wish they had.

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