Solutions for Journalism, or Re-Creating a Priesthood?

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson (Washington Post op-ed): New-model journalism needs community support. 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. It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including print newspapers. What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.

The sentiments behind this executive summary of a new report are fine ones. No one wants to see journalism disappear whether or not newspapers do.

But the authors’ solution is, in part, another example of asking taxpayers to fix problems we can solve ourselves.

Before continuing, I should note that Len Downie, former executive editor at the Washington Post, is a colleague at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University. I admire him and his work, and the report he and co-author, a professor of communication at Columbia University, have released is an excellent compendium of some of exciting new projects under way in the journalism sphere.

In fact, their wide-ranging look at the new entrants — people and institutions trying journalism and business experiments amid the failure of newspapers — could well have been the basis for an entirely different conclusion, namely that we’re making wonderful progress, than the recommendations they come up with.

The authors especially seem to crave government intervention at several levels even as they praise market solutions. (In his well-reasoned post today Jeff Jarvis says that the authors “are addressing the business problem of news without doing reporting on the business.” I agree with most of Jeff’s post but disagree in part on this point.)

Instead, as I read this, the authors effectively dismiss what they earlier surround with great praise, saying it’s not nearly enough to replace what we’re losing. Of course that’s true today (though there’s insufficient recognition of the deep and valuable news/information flow in important niche arenas that journalists rarely if ever covered in their monopoly days). It won’t be true in a few years if current trends persist.

Several of the recommendations make good sense (and are already happening in some cases), such as encouraging journalism schools to be part of the local media ecosystem in a more direct way; spurring philanthropy; and, a very good idea, persuading public broadcasting to turn its mission to a more local focus.

But when the authors call for collective action, watch out. What they’re talking about is using government. The only institutions that seem able to use government without being used are too-big-to-fail banks and military contractors; the rest of us fall into the inverse category. Journalists get government help at some peril.

For my money, the most problematic recommendation (among several mistaken ones) is the fifth:

A national Fund for Local News should be created with money the Federal Communications Commission now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers and administered in open competition through state Local News Fund Councils.

Whoa. Think about it. Take taxpayers’ money — this is a new tax we’re talking about, or diversion of current fees and taxes — and give it to councils that will pick winners, re-establishing a journalistic priesthood to replace the increasingly ingrown and unimaginative one we’ve had. Who’ll pick the councils, moreover? Government, that’s who, either directly or by proxy.

Now, government has long had a hand in supporting journalism, as I noted in this post a few months ago. Some of that support has been indirect, such as postal subsidies (though even those were targeted by intention). Others, which were never justified, included the odious 1970s law, still in effect, that let newspapers combine business operations in communities to preserve the illusion of competition.

The only government intervention I’d support at this point would be the one that’s apparently not on the table: a taxpayer-funded wiring of America, putting fiber-optic lines everywhere, or at least to every curb. Let private businesses and local institutions light it up. Nothing would do more to spur media development of all kinds.

Look, we definitely do have a problem in the journalism craft. The upcoming period will be messy, at best. Maybe there will be a time for intervention in a more “collective” and direct way on the news. Maybe, but not now.

Let’s watch the market work — a market that includes for-profit, not-for-profit, volunteer and all manner of new approaches, in addition to the remaking of some traditional methods. It’s increasingly clear to me that it is working.

4 thoughts on “Solutions for Journalism, or Re-Creating a Priesthood?”

  1. Dan, I agree that we’ll be far better off letting the market work than turning to the government for solutions. Whatever Downie & Schudson or anyone else proposes, the actual legislation enacting their ideas for federal help will go through Congress. And we’ve seen in the shield legislation how they will try to define who gets the federal pork. I have blogged on my criticism of the report:

  2. 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!

  3. I’m not a media expert or professional journalist. I am a technologist who has an interest in how information is presented and consumed in general. However, for what it’s worth, I totally agree with you – I think we need a bunch of things, including a “Journalist discovery engine” (which I blogged about a while ago – ) and some other things like a means of tracking ‘things in which I have a stake’ such as journalistic projects I’m supporting and a properly thought out and integrated micropayments system to reward journalistic efforts and support projects we want to see succeed (I should blog about those ideas too when I get the time). But the key to these is not technology, but interface as they need to engender user *behaviours* that encourage appropriate payment to the people producing the artifacts.

    This is what is needed to a) allow quality journalism to happen without the need for expensive umbrella media organisations; and b) to encourage emerging institutions that provide much needed ‘vertical’ authority and fact-checking to allow people to appropriately evaluate what they are reading.

    The last thing that’s needed are nationalised newspapers.

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