Columbia writes off the MSM. Now what?
For all the drama conveyed yesterday by the vote of no confidence in mainstream journalism rendered by one of the nation’s top journalism schools, the 98-page study issued by Columbia University is perhaps most significant for what it doesn’t say.
While cataloguing a host of previously discussed potential fixes for the press, the report falls short of breaking new ground. That may be because there is no new ground to be broken (though that seems improbable). Or because journalism in the future will be practiced by a crazy quilt of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs supported by any number of for-profit, non-profit and individual schemes.
So, yes, saving journalism is a tall order. But the solutions advocated in the Columbia report – grandly but somewhat misleadingly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” – for the most part range from curiously impractical to startlingly unoriginal.
The bulk of the report (text here) commissioned by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University traces the decline and fall of the mainstream media. Summing up their exhaustive but frequently derivative analysis, authors Len Downie, the editor emeritus of the Washington Post, and Professor Michael Schudson, conclude:
“The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone. American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment….”
But the study’s suggestions for the future, which fall into the three principal categories discussed below, leave the reader wanting more – not just a deeper analysis of the compendium of mostly familiar proposals but also, significantly, some original thinking about what innovations might go beyond them.
The report calls on the feds, foundations and journalism faculties to fill the void that has been created by the MSM meltdown. Following is a summary of the high points of the findings and my reaction to them:
Federal support for news gathering
The report recommends that the federal government give for-profit news media whatever tax breaks and antitrust waivers they need to continue to limp along.
It says the Federal Communications Commission should allocate to news organizations some of the $7 billion it collects annually to assure rural telecommunications services, adding that serious consideration should be given to assisting the media with federal economic stimulus funds.
The study says the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should require public broadcasters – who already have plenty of fiscal challenges of their own – to step up coverage in their local markets to fill the void created by the ailing newspaper business.
The antitrust waivers conferred by the Newspaper Preservation Act failed to save the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tucson Citizen. As demonstrated by the need of the Poynter Institute to sell Congressional Quarterly to help support the St. Petersburg Times, newspapers owned by non-profits face the same challenges as their profit-seeking brethren.
The annual sales and number of jobs associated with the media industry are not sufficiently large to make them a priority for a federal bailout during this period of unprecedented economic distress. The federal investment in improved rural broadband penetration contemplated in the stimulus package would give consumers a greater choice of information than a handout targeted to a limited number of defined news organizations. Assuming for the sake of discussion that a handout were in the offing, who would choose which news media to support?
Federal funding and journalism are a dangerous combination. As recently as four years ago, Bush administration appointees terrorized the CPB by attempting to politically skew its coverage. How could deeper government involvement in news coverage help save jounalism?
Foundation support for non-profit journalism
Reporting that American University in Washington found $128 million in foundation funding had been given to “news non-profits” between 2005 and 2009, the study said the sum was not enough.
The authors urged philanthropists, foundations, and community foundations to “substantially increase their support for news organizations that have demonstrated a substantial commitment to public affairs and accountability reporting.”
The report expressed confidence that citizen involvement can help make up for the loss of professionally generated journalism, stating: “For over a century, the Audubon Society has relied on thousands of local volunteers for a national bird count that provides crucial data for scientists in what might be termed pro-am scientific research.”
As discussed above with respect to the St. Pete Times and reported here in the case of the Chi-Town Daily News, non-profit organizations are subject to the same economic pressures as conventional businesses.
While we have been fortunate to date that the supporters of most journalism non-profits have promised to prevent their interests and prejudices from intruding on coverage, there is great danger when an organization like Pro Publica depends on a single source for the preponderance of its funding.
The skills involved in counting birds are not commensurate with those necessary to expose such scandals as the shameful care provided wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Len Downie knows this full well. He was executive editor of the Washington Post when it broke the story.
Journalism schools should pick up the slack
“Universities, both public and private, should become ongoing sources of local, state, specialized subject, and accountability news reporting as part of their educational missions,” said the report. “They should operate their own news organizations, host platforms for other nonprofit news and investigative reporting organizations [and] provide faculty positions” so “professional journalists, faculty members and students can collaborate on news reporting.”
The report does not discuss the major issue of who would fund such activities, even though most public and private universities are struggling with budget shortfalls as a result of the contraction of the economy.
As but one example of the financial pressures affecting most universities, the faculty senate at Columbia warned that most units at the university will find the 2010-11 academic year to be “significantly more austere than FY 2009-10 if current assumptions of a second year of 8% reductions in endowment support” are borne out.
The Columbia study was an ambitious undertaking attempting to explore one of the most significant problems facing our democracy.
While it would not be fair to expect it to provide all the answers, it owed readers a deeper exploration of the proposed solutions. In failing to offer many original ideas, it fell particularly short of its stated mission of offering a blueprint for reconstructing journalism.
Its single greatest achievement may be demonstrating that there is a lot more work for the rest of us to do.