The Reconstruction of American Journalism

Leonard Downie Jr., Michael Schudson, Columbia Journalism Review, Oct 20, 2009
Commentary by Stephen Downes

When the authors of this long article say that American journalism is being transformed, they do not mean the press release rehashes or partisan hackery that you may associate with the genre. These are apparently secure. Rather, what is at risk are the (mythological) "independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs," "accountability journalism," and "emotionally engaging coverage by newspapers and television."

What is happening, argue the authors, is that new technologies have eroded the advertising market and at the same time distributed the news reporting function across the entire population. Still, even as news organizations get smaller, they are, maintain the authors, profitable, and finding a balance in the new market increasingly filled with alternative sources. "Lumped together as the 'blogosphere,' these sites are sometimes seen as either the replacement for-or the enemy of-established news media. In fact, the blogosphere and older media have become increasingly symbiotic." But their status is precarious, and so the authors recommend that "any independent news organization substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs to be created as or converted into a nonprofit entity or a low-profit Limited Liability Corporation serving the public interest."

They also recommend increasing funding for publicly supported news agencies. And they suggest that public agencies widen their mandate: "Universities, both public and private, should become ongoing sources of local, state, specialized subject, and accountability news reporting as part of their educational missions." To pay for this, they argue, "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."

What the authors miss in this, in my view, is that what motivates the legions of bloggers providing news coverage is the perceived need for an alternative. Newspapers would not be decreasingly popular if they actually served the functions described: independent reporting, accountability journalism, and engaging coverage. Increasingly, they become their masters' voices, serving the financial and political interests of their corporate owners and sponsors, a loss of function seen in an extreme in the outrageous example of Fox News. Nothing in this proposal reverses that trend; indeed, it entrenches the existing order, cementing in a publicly-funded tax-free status an instrument of advocacy for the rich.

The same situation exists for universities. Their financial position is increasingly untenable. Corporate sponsors are demanding more explicit return. And despite billions in government investments, the university system remains - and is increasingly - the bastion of the well to do, an instrument for cementing advantage rather than distributing it. And universities, like the press, have not come to grips with what motivates the legions of people providing access to learning online, the perceived need for an alternative.

We no longer have the resources in society to continue to provide massive subsidies to the richest five percent of the population.
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