A much-anticipated report on the state of American journalism was published on Monday, and I would like to say that its recommendations provide a road map for a new golden age of journalism.
I would like to say that.
But as I read “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” – which is nothing if not long – I kept thinking to myself: All this blah-blah-blah is giving me a headache.
At “Silicon Alley Insider,” financial writer Henry Blodget almost got it right when he asked: “Can’t we please stop whining about the death of journalism already?”
But then Blodget retreated to the simplistic pose so popular among folks who have found a small niche on the Internet. This report isn’t about journalism, he proclaimed. It’s just newspaper people who want the world to stop changing.
On the same morning, the New York Times announced it was eliminating 100 jobs in its newsroom.
This is why it is so difficult to have an intelligent conversation about the future of news reporting.
Newspaper people keep complaining about the impacts of technological change – as if someone will make it go away.
And Internet people keep pretending nothing will be lost if news companies don’t have the resources to report the major stories that are vital to a functioning democracy.
Blodget trotted out the usual examples: Facebook and Twitter brought us images from the protests in Iran and evidence of corporate abuses here at home.
Yes, technology creates countless opportunities to share information in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
What Blodget didn’t mention are the stories that aren’t being reported because news organizations are shrinking. From Baghdad to Washington to Sacramento, news bureaus are being shuttered. Teams of investigative reporters are being disbanded. In every town in America, there are fewer journalists to report on what’s being decided today and tomorrow and the next day by elected officials, bureaucrats and business leaders.
In a coherent conversation, defenders of the newspaper and defenders of the Internet would want an economic model that captures the best of both worlds – consistent and focused news reports from professional journalists and the wide world of news and opinion made possible by the Internet.
But they choose instead to live in silos, confined by their own narrow perspectives.
When the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism commissioned a prominent newspaper editor and a prominent academic to write about the future of journalism, some anticipated they would show the way.
There is no doubt that Leonard J. Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Columbia J-school, understand the challenge. Here’s what they wrote last week in a Washington Post commentary:
“News reporting that holds accountable those with power and influence has been a vital part of American democratic life, especially in places with daily newspapers profitable enough, and with owners public-spirited enough, to maintain substantial reporting staffs. That journalism is now at risk . . .”
But their report concludes with a grab bag of recommendations that reads more like concessions to an uncertain future.
News organizations should be supported by local nonprofits, they say. Never mind that many nonprofits are struggling to survive on revenues that wouldn’t pay a fraction of the cost of the average newsroom.
News organizations should be subsidized by government under rules that prevent political meddling, they say. Never mind that government is broke. Never mind that politicians and bureaucrats would still find ways to dictate what was and wasn’t reported.
I know. News organizations make mistakes. They can be biased, arrogant and lazy.
But the old newspaper model – supported by revenues from advertising and subscriptions – still pays the bills for an astonishing mix of news, information and entertainment that comes your way every day.
In the chaos of new technology, we now are obliged to find a new economic model.
But we also know that certain kinds of information can never be free.
The best and most reliable journalism is the work of experienced people – reporters, opinion writers, editors, photographers, artists, researchers and more – given the time and supported by an organization dedicated to preparing a daily report on the world in which we live.
Newspaper and Internet, they do it every day, not just when the spirit moves.
I don’t know whether Americans are willing to find a new way to pay for quality journalism, but I know it won’t happen through hand-outs from nonprofits and from government. That’s a prescription for a half-starved journalism, subject to political manipulations of all kinds.
Once this economic recession passes, we will have a better understanding of this changing landscape. Without journalists with the resources to do their jobs, our democratic traditions will be in trouble. Some would say they already are.
Note: If you’re up to it, you can read the entire report here.