Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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.


Blogger 10ksnooker said...

Did you see the videos of all the TV newsers jumping on the fake Chamber of Commerce story yesterday?

Do you see the problem?

5:21 AM  
Blogger Tim Windsor said...

Your last graf:

"Its single greatest achievement may be demonstrating that there is a lot more work for the rest of us to do."

...set off a ping in my brain.

Why not do just that? Use the document as it is now as the chassis for a fuller, more useful report.

You could crowdsource it, or find/assign smart people to flesh out the thin areas.

5:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

xxxx, saving journalism is a tall order xxxx
This is the core of what I see wrong with this debate. Reading the Internet these days, it looks to me as if "journalism" is very much alive and well. We see to overlook the array of pixels-only startups like Politico, or the contributions Slate or Huffington Post we didn't have a decade ago.
So are we really trying to "save journalism," or are we trying to "save newspapers." I would suggest it is the latter, and it is far too late. In the next few days we will see the annual newspaper circulation statistics that I suspect will show a continuing decline in newspaper readership. Barely a quarter of the U.S. population read newspapers, and it is laughably low among younger demographics if you break the data into age brackets.
The battle is over, at least for the big metros. Instead of armoring up for some quixotic venture to "save journalism," we need to recognize that time has moved along. Len Downie and these other silent screen stars are trying to go back to their golden ages. It's tragic, sad, and laughable.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One point they should be credited with highlighting in this report is the devastation caused in this recession to TV newsrooms. Alan concentrates on newspapers in his blog, but local TV newsrooms continue to be eviscerated.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

Thanks for the thumbnail of the full report, Allan. It saves me reading 98 pages (at least for now).

I continue to maintain that the challenge to the newspaper industry lies in its distribution technology (if indeed that term can be accurately applied to a centuries old method).

I don't believe that there are any door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen in existence any longer, are there? Yet the newspaper industry retains much the same distribution technology.

The industry can no longer be a newspaper industry, but must adapt and rapidly embrace electronic distribution model(s) -- and become a *news* industry.

I believe there are ways to do this that don't necessitate heavy-handed intervention by government -- and which don't expose their valuable content to internet news aggregators.

As Anonymous said to your earlier entry, "the world is flat". The cost of distribution has become near zero.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While promoting more government support for newspapers, this report ignores some of the major subsidies the government already provides. For example, the US Postal Service allows publishers to distribute newspaper at rates of 17 to 20 cents a paper, compared to 42 cents for first class mailings. Astonishingly, the USPS currently is considering a newspaper industry-backed plan to actually lower these rates, even though the US Postal Service is in such dire straits it is proposing to suspend deliveries one day a week. The Washington Post under Downie was one of the newspapers taking advantage of these breaks to mail weekly advertising packages to readers.
Then there are state tax breaks, including one recently passed in Washington state, catered to lower tax costs of newspapers.
Furthermore, this report not only proposes to take subsidies away from public libraries to fund (for profit) newspapers, but also has the temerity to suggest univerities could dip into their endowments to bail out (for profit) newspapers.
Government interference in market decisions doesn't work. How many newspapers were saved by the Newspaper Preservation Act. In the case of Albuquerque we have the situation where Scripps is receiving about $5 million a year for not printing. Perversely, the law designed to protect afternoon newspapers is being used to protect the profits of afternoon newspaper owners.
In short, the government already provides generous funding for American newspapers. If the industry cannot make a profit with all these, what makes us think that a viable industry would continue with even more government assistance?

9:03 AM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

(Just finished reading the full report.)

There's a lot of food for thought (and action) in it, despite what industry insiders like Alan may believe it lacks in detailed specifics.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Matthew Terenzio said...

I've found the solution! Do news better than anyone else. If there is a market for it you can't fail!

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For T. Heller: I also read the report, and agree with Alan. It's not that it lacks detailed specifics, but what it lacks is novel and innovative recommendations that haven't been aleady been turfed over repeatedly. It is a disappointment.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Mike Ferring said...

Asking for original solutions to a problem no one so far has been able to solve sets an extremely high bar for the Columbia report to leap, but it's true that they hit it about chin high. Given the quality of your readers, Tim Windsor may have something there. Maybe one day the original solutions will appear in a box like this one.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Downie/Schudson’s argument that accountability journalism is especially threatened by the industry's current economic woes is not backed up by the AJR press study they cite--i.e. that accountability journalism actually dropped in 90s -- 'local, nat. & internat. coverage down almost 10%' at a time when the business model still worked. Business news coverage actually doubled during during the 90s, paralleling the run up to the current crisis, which it missed it entirely.

Downie & Schudson mourn the end of MSM's glory days, when it produced "the kinds of revenues or profits that had subsidized large reporting staffs", but accountability journalism was already in decline.

That the decline of accountability journalism predates the current economic difficulties suggests that American journalism has long been threatened by something more than the collapse of its business model.

In regard to the fate of accountability journalism, one has reason to ask whether American journalism needs reconstructing (Downie/Schudson?) or reformation? If the latter, what else needs reforming besides the business model?

Much of Downie and Schudson's ruminations are limited to the arrangements of American journalism, not its substance.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What troubles me is the dismissiveness of MSM and assumptions that mainstream are no longer producing valued journalism. Take a look at http://www.ire.org/extraextra/.

I agree that journalism will be supported by multiple entities going forward -- professional, non-profit, volunteers -- but let's not assume that we are in search of a replacement for MSM, but an enhancement to the high-quality journalism still being practiced by newspapers today.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 6:46

The mainstream is no longer producing valued journalism. Instead, the MSM are involved in suppressing stories.

ACORN, Van Jones, John Edwards, Anne Dunn, the NEA scandal -- all major stories involving government malfeasance.

Yet the MSM covered them up.

When the MSM die, we will lose nothing but an obstacle to democracy.

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Newspapers thrive. Newspapers die. Where was all this hand-wringing when afternoon newspapers disappeared? Where is the call for government action as venerable magazines like Gourmet fold? Perhaps Len Downie's Washington Post stocks are threatened by this newspaper environment, but I just don't see the national crisis. Downie notes this in his report, which says local newspapers have been hit by the recession but are doing OK.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A short term solution has not only been proposed but it is working where it has been implemented. STOP giving away original news content for free on the internet. If it's not available anywhere else and people want it, then they will pay for it. Web site banner ads alone will not support extensive, local audience news coverage.

Bruce Wood

1:10 PM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

"If it's not available anywhere else and people want it, then they will pay for it."

That solution sounds simple enough, but...how will they know it exists? Can someone 'want' something that's not visible?

I mean, why do magazines bother to have cover stories, newspapers headlines, television shows promos and movies trailers?

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Matt Mireles said...

Obviously, tasking a group of dinosaurs to think like mammals is not gonna produce anything original.

Also, let's be clear: journalism schools are not exactly hotbeds of innovation. Increasingly they are populated by refugees from the newspaper crisis who pine for the glory days and push their students to read paper news. Name a single person at the cutting edge of media innovation who works at a journalism school? Any successful entrepreneurs or real digital innovators? Not so much.

The future will neither be seen nor created by the defendants of the past.

9:54 PM  

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