Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I wish Len Downie and Michael Schudson had called on journalists to fix their own house, instead of urging "collective" action

The reconstruction of American Journalism” by journalist Leonard Downie and scholar Michael Schudson provides a valuable service. Their overview of the current state of local reporting is perhaps the best available for anybody interested in the subject.

Yet it concerns me that their perspective skews too far toward government solutions at a time of incredible dynamism - and, yes, destruction - in the marketplace. They argue that American society must now take “collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting.” The result, I fear, is that too many will now focus on societal solutions rather than on what news organizations - both fledgling and established - can do on their own to improve their financial footing. Instead of subjecting their own practices and traditions to scrutiny, journalists may now be too eager to knock on the doors of Congress. Or they'll place their hopes in other benevolent institutions that might make it possible for them to continue the work they love.

Downie, with whom I serve on a media and governance working group for the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, and Schudson, whose work was part of my studies when I went to graduate school at Northwestern, are deservedly influential figures in the profession. Yet I wish Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, had invited a third person with a stronger business background to team up with them in their investigation of what might be done to help American journalism. They're too quick to despair about future business prospects. Why, for example, do Downie and Schudson seem to believe that Internet advertising is inherently “low-cost?” They argue that it is “unlikely” that online revenue can be the primary support for most news organizations. And that, they say, is “why we will be exploring a variety and mixture of ways to support news reporting, which must include non market sources like philanthropy and government.” Must include? Really? (Disclosure: I support nonprofit journalism efforts and am on the advisory board of one, The Texas Tribune.)

Their fundamental economic belief is flatly stated deep in the document, on page 75: “Many newspapers can and will find ways to survive in print and online, with new combinations of reduced resources. But they will no longer produce the kinds of revenues or profits that had subsidized large reporting staffs, regardless of what new business models they evolve.”

How they know that I do not know. Yet it is the basis for their argument for further efforts to enroll the government and philanthropic organizations in supporting news reporting. Am I missing something or isn’t the most successful Internet business of recent years, Google, a huge advertising-based economic engine, generating what anybody would characterize as significant profits? Is there really no way that newspapers and other news organizations could do something similar or better? Downie and Schudson give a nod to efforts to improve the economics of online news, but it almost seems like they’ve given up on the possibility that the news they, and I, so value - independent, original and credible - could actually be highly valued by readers and advertisers in the future.

They seem to bemoan the fact that the number of journalists today is the same as in the early 1970s. I understand that. But what they don’t say is that a journalist today is so much more productive than a journalist in the early 1970s that a body for body comparison isn’t relevant. I started as a reporter at a time when we still had typewriters, took messages on pink pads, didn’t have voice mail or fax machines, let alone cell phones, laptops and all the other marvelous tools of our time. Journalists are far more efficient today than ever was possible before. That's one of the reasons I believe journalism today is in many respects so much better.

Downie and Schudson do a great job of pointing out how some of the new online organizations focus on matters of public importance. But they don’t probe whether traditional news organizations could reposition themselves and do the same. I see possibilities in mega brands like The New York Times or CNN teaming up with local journalism organizations, with each focusing on what it does best. But not necessarily in a nonprofit structure. Maybe each could strengthen the other, working together, in a new kind of business network.

Ultimately, I am hopeful that we will see solutions that dramatically increase online revenue when we figure out how to deliver relevant advertising to the right audience and when we figure out how to charge for content in a way that doesn't seem punitive, but rather provides additional value for the user. There's no question that the current business model of newspapers is broken. But that doesn't mean a new one can't - or won't - be found, even without government help.

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