How to Save Journalism

Posted by Trish Riley, January 11, 2010

As a journalist trying to find a way to make a living bringing essential information to the public’s attention in a time when far more money is available to push marketing spin to sway and confuse readers, I find this article very important. I’ve clipped a few high points here, but if you are interested in the value of a free press, you’ll want to click through and read the entire piece. Thanks to Ed Brown for sending this our way:

Everyone agrees that a free society requires a free press. But a free press without the resources to compensate those who gather and analyze information, and to distribute that information widely and in an easily accessible form, is like a seed without water or sunlight.

American news media are being steered off the cliff by investors and corporate managers who soured on their “properties” when the economic downturn dried up what was left of their advertising bonanza. They are taking journalism with them.

…a report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson proposed requiring “broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country.” CJR called the idea a “radical suggestion.”

No reasonable case can be made that journalism will rebound as the economy recovers from a recession that accelerated but certainly did not cause the crisis confronting newspapers–or that a “next big thing” will arrive as soon as news organizations develop good Internet business plans.

There are far fewer working journalists per 100,000 Americans today than existed one, two or three decades ago. At current rates of decline, 2020 will make 2010 look like a golden age. When the Federal Trade Commission held its unprecedented two-day conference on the state of journalism in December, the operative term was “collapse.” Conversely, the ratio of PR flacks to working journalists has skyrocketed, as spin replaces news.

The implications are clear: if our policy-makers do nothing, if “business as usual” prevails, we face a future where there will be relatively few paid journalists working in competing newsrooms with editors, fact-checkers, travel budgets and institutional support. Vast areas of public life and government activity will take place in the dark–as is already the case in many statehouses across the country. Independent and insightful coverage of the basic workings of local, state and federal government, and of our many interventions and occupations abroad, is disappearing as rapidly as the rainforests. The political implications are dire. Just as a brown planet cannot renew itself, so an uninformed electorate cannot renew democracy. Popular rule doesn’t work without an informed citizenry, and an informed citizenry cannot exist without credible journalism.

…the crisis began in earnest in the 1970s and was well under way by the 1990s. It owes far more to the phenomenon of media corporations maximizing profits by turning newsrooms into “profit centers,” lowering quality and generally trivializing journalism.

Journalism, like other public goods, is going to require substantial public subsidy if it is to exist at a level necessary for self-government to succeed.

The moral of the story is clear: journalism and press subsidies are the price of civilization. To deliver this public good in sufficient measure to sustain democracy, it must be treated as we treat national security. No one would dare suggest that our military defense could be adequately covered by volunteer labor, pledge drives, bake sales, silent auctions and foundation grants. The same is true for journalism.

…if citizens spend as much time considering this issue as our corporate media executives and investors do trying to privatize, wall off and commercialize the Internet, journalism and democracy will win out.

via How to Save Journalism |

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