Giving up on the news business

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.

: Alan Mutter’s good commentary.

  • Tobe

    Maybe the federal government should start considering the support of religious organizations too.

    • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

      Ah……they already do.

      They are subsidizing the hell out of the pagan earth worship creed: windmills, overpriced hybrid cars, etc.

  • KP

    In Germany we had a similar discussion a couple of weeks ago, but it was more an election issue for the “Bundestagswahl”, I guess:

    http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/tv/0,1518,647193,00.html

    The left-wing candidate suggested to hand dpa (consider it a wildcard for news orgs) over to a public foundation, and fortunately enough noone agreed :)

    Newspagers and news agencies will have to find ways to fund their journalistic operations, and dpa for instance is already doing a great job here:

    More than 10 years ago they bought a tiny little PR wire (disclosure: I’m on the managemend board of this pr wire, it’s called “news aktuell”) which is now dpa’s major cash cow.

    Isn’t it ironic? PR is helping to fund professional journalism?

    Newspapers will have to take a look at their core assets (brand, infrastructure, network, audiance, etc.) and develop new products and services based on those assets.

    Anyway, the bottom line ist: We definitely don’t need governmentally funded journalism!

  • http://www.fredleo.com everysandwich

    This sounds very much like a Mark Lloyd POV to me.

  • James H

    Huh. If you replace “blogger” with “stringer,” than collaborating with a blogger looks like a very, very old model of journalism …

  • Rob K

    Saying that journalism is dying with newpapers is akin to saying that music is dying with record companies

    • Tex Lovera

      +1

  • http://www.facesofseinfeld.com Ken

    Could newspapers give out (subsidize) a free Kindle reader in return for a 1 or 2 year subscription? The newspaper format is the problem, not the journalists themselves.

    I’d prefer to read the paper on a Kindle. If they used the cell phone market model (free equipment for subscription) I’d take it.

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  • jp

    Public funding can be a good thing. The CBC Crown corporation has incredible journalists that do a great public service, and they show great integrity even if the party in power might be tempted to eat away at funding from time to time. (They are mostly self supporting, receive far less funding than the BBC and so tend to focus on news.)

    I guess the idea is to try and save award winning papers like the Rocky Mountain News. Good/ethical journalism is vital to a healthy democracy and the public has a stake in that, and may want to before Murdoch takes over much more of the world.

    • Dennis D

      CBC has also been taken over by left wing radical ideologues.

    • Tex Lovera

      Government funded news is an absolutely horrible idea.

      And as far as Canadian media go, they sit and roll over like good doggies whenever Canadian courts issue orders that a case “not be discussed”. It’s Canadian bloggers who get the word out.

      Hell, if a paper is “worth saving”, people will “save” it by buying the damned thing. Maybe we should have saved “award-winning” buggy makers??

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  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    The report is pathetic. A epitaph for the journalism business instead of a plan for recovery. It’s no wonder we are dead.

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  • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

    The interesting question isn’t “Who pays the journalists?” but rather: “How does the Paymaster decide who is to be paid and for what will they be paid?”

    The problem is that when foundations or governments are paymasters, they tend to make their funding decisions based on principles or agendas that may not reflect the needs or desires of “the people” — the readers. The safest way to decide “who gets paid and what for” is to leave it to the people — via the democratic force of a competitive marketplace.

    bob wyman

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  • http://www.savethenews.org Josh

    Jeff. Let me start with full disclosure. We (Free Press) conducted a study earlier this year (http://freepress.net/files/saving_the_news.pdf) that involved talking with Len Downie and numerous other new and old journalism leaders, nonprofit advocates, policy makers and working journalists and came to similar conclusions to the Downie/Schudson report. Their findings and recommendations are not as extreme as you make them out to be – and there is more agreement about a government role than you acknowledge.

    Like the Knight Commission report that came out just a few weeks ago, Downie and Schudson see govt. as just one part of the future of journalism. They are not giving up on the news business, just arguing that public media needs to be a bigger part of the media ecosystem, and that we all have a role in helping make that happen. You assert that they think journalism is dying with newspapers, but that’s just untrue – they highlight and celebrate a range of new online journalism efforts.

    You also argue that they focus too much on the revenue side and not enough on the way the web has lowered cost. Government can also help here. In our report we outline how government can help protect and foster this through policies like net neutrality, broadband access, and community technology centers. The Knight Commission covered this area well also.

    If we ignore policy, then we take ourselves out of those debates and leave it to the lobbyists to decide. In an earlier post – your “testimony” to Sen. Kerry – you actually advocated a role for public policies including universal broadband, government transparency, media literacy in schools, and tax advantages designed to foster innovation. What’s changed?

    • http://LincolnParishNewsOnline.wordpress.com Walter Abbott

      Oh stop it.

      Where is it chiseled in granite that you all get to decide what is the ‘news’ and deserve to be ‘saved?’ And by the taxpayers, no less.

      Here is the reality – as opined by one of your own: “I was taught when I was a young reporter that it’s news when we say it is. I think that’s still true — it’s news when ‘we’ say it is. It’s just who ‘we’ is has changed”

      David Carr (b. 1956), US Journalist. CNN “Reliable Sources”, Sunday, August 10, 2008.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      I remain consistently opposed to government subsidy of or interference in speech of any form. First Amendment, you know.
      Government helping broadband, transparency, and education are quite another matter. Nothing has changed.

      • http://marginalizingmorons.blogspot.com/ CaptiousNut

        Jeff

        With respect, you might want to research the history of government and education. Doing so you’d see that the singular goal of US *public* education was to tranquilize the masses, i.e. suppress far more than just the first Amendment.

        THE book is online, and free:

        http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/underground/toc1.htm

    • Tex Lovera

      What bullshit.

      Let’s see, what do we have going on these days:

      Tea Partys all over the country with a true grass-roots participation by people formerly disconnected from the political process.

      More debate with MORE VOICES than we’ve ever had on major issues: the economy, the war, health care, global warming, you name it.

      All while the newsPAPERS go down the toilet.

      Tell me again why they need to be saved?????

    • cm

      So what?

      Perhaps real journalism has been eroding for the last while to the extent that nobody really cares and it really doesn’t add value to society. If not perhaps journalism should go the same way as other once-useful occupations like farriers, lamp-lighters and bustle-makers.

      News is now in the business of competing for eyeballs and attention. As a consumer I can read/watc/listen to the news or I can read a novel, watch Oprah/sitcom or listen to music radio. As a media exec (eg TV) I can run sitcoms or news, quality is determined by which provides the best revenue stream, not by fact.

      So-called journalism has been changed by this, serving up sound-bite sized alarmism. The days of critical investigative journalism are gone. It is really just infotainment.

      Perhaps many journalists think they are serving society by bringing news and commentary which informs people. Perhaps they are providing this, but that does not mean people are really taking that onboard. Public opinion is swayed far more by what Oprah says, or what Arnie or Dan Browne say in some eco-thriller than any fact-based journalism..

      I’m not for a minute suggesting that old-time journalism really has no value to me. Unfortunately there is less and less value to most people and I am probably part of a dying breed of people who care more about truth than perception. Unfortunately journalism seems to be reinventing itself to be more and more trendy to keep market appeal. In doing so journalism loses its core value to people like me and is
      cutting its own throat.

      I don’t think it is easy to ask people to make painful changes. I’m sure that to ask many committed journalists to give up their passions for truth etc and become media whores for better business is like asking a concert pianist to change to rap becuase it sells more records (or T shirts).

      I’m not a journalist.

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  • http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com Steve Buttry

    Jeff, forcing taxpayer-subsidized broccoli on us would have sound a lot better if Downie and Schudson had not documented lots of innovative journalism efforts that are showing promise. They didn’t explain why we should move to federal handouts before even trying the possible biz models you have proposed in New Business Models for News. They did not examine possibilities for business models that move beyond advertising. I have blogged on my criticism of the report:
    http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2009/10/19/american-media-need-innovation-not-subsidy/

  • Carson

    The Downie and Shudson document exemplifies why a government-enforced levy on readers is about the only way they are going to attract an audience: they don’t ask for feedback, they aren’t engaging in a discussion, they are sending up some trial balloons. In the tradition of their enfranchised positions, procured in the past by massive capital investments that only a few could marshal, they now announce that the next phase of enfranchisement will be procured by government, of which there are only a few.

    This kind of “solution by announcement” is something newspaper hierarchies are accustomed to: Kelly just “announced” by memo that almost a tenth of their staff will no longer be employed by Christmas. “We’ll come through this,” he tells them. “We?”

    To me, that is one of the roots of the problem: these titans speak for “we.” And what we are better off with is government-enforced support of them.

    Maybe they really care; maybe in private they are clear thinkers and good men; but in this report they sound like two old professors teaching classes no one wants to take any more and they are telling the university to make the classes required — for the good of country. It isn’t enough that they screwed up their own profession — they want to burden the rest of our professions, too, and it’s ok (they say) because it’s for our good.

    • Carson

      *are NOT sending up some trial balloons …”

  • http://www.onesherpa.com Andee Sellman, One Sherpa

    True journalism will never die. Controlled middlemen posing as journalists and acting on the orders of editors may find themselves surplus to requirements as readers are able to get to the heart of matters more quickly through social media.

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  • http://www.waleshome.org Duncan Higgitt

    A really interesting piece, Jeff, and incredibly useful. We have a situation here in the UK where our newspapers are in various states of managed decline, with a management that seems determined to squeeze what is left for every penny of profit, regardless of whether they tank those papers or not.

    To my mind, the essence of the issue is that there is still a readership out there, but that many of our commercial organisations no longer find it profitable to deliver news. As a consequence, I believe they have abdicated their responsibilities to their readership and no longer deserve to be saved.

    News consumers are no longer loyal to titles, certainly not in the way they once were. This is bad news for news organisations, but it provides a chink of light for reporters, those that are brave enough to begin producing their own news output and smart enough to find routes to market. As such, I’m thinking that what we need is support for journalism business colleges, providing reporting standards, commercial expertise and new media research and development facilities, rather than state aid.

    I’ve written about it here: http://waleshome.org/2009/10/paper-nightmares/

    It’s started a bit of a debate in Wales. However, we’re still quite some way behind the work that’s gone on in the US (regardless of whether you agree with individual findings or not), even though our problems sound the same. I’d like to keep in touch on this.

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  • http://writethetruth.terapad.com/ BMoreKarl

    Anybody see a troubling trend in this administration – the Executive Branch in particular seems to be flirting with the idea of defining who is and who isn’t covered by the First Amendment protection of the free press.

    With the whole War on Fox News – i find it disturbing that first the FTC and now Administration officials are saying who is and who isn’t the press.

    Definition is a form of regulation. You have no say in the Matter. I can say Fox News is not what they say they are, but you, Mr. Obama-Flunky can not!

  • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

    Yahoo seems to have decided that competing with the existing news publishers is probably going to be more productive than trying to help them…
    See: http://www.andrewgolis.com/blog/?p=3314

    bob wyman

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  • http://www.currentpoliticalscene.com Elaine Cullen

    I find this a disturbing consideration and something that has been tried before, in totalitarian regimes, including Germany, where as a commentator above has noted, the same “model” has been forwarded. Clearly here in the U.S. the problem is an unsustainable business model that allowed the content of news articles to be published online for free, which clearly cut into their news and delivery sales since people could now read the same articles for free online. As well, advertisers, not being sure of the readership or locale of the online readers, are far less likely to advertise in online editions of news, thereby cutting the only two sources of revenue.

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