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GANAHL ON MEDIA: A Fed Press Bailout?

Want to start an argument with a journalist? Easy. Demand their reporting notes, insist they reveal the names of confidential sources, or suggest they seek government funding to keep their legacy media afloat. And that’s the controversial suggestion Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson make in their report The Reconstruction of American Journalism commissioned by the Columbia University Journalism School.

The two are no strangers to the practice and study of media. Downie, a former executive editor of The Washington Post teaches at Arizona State University, and Schudson is a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. The Columbia Journalism Review published a 35-page summary (which I have read) of the complete 100-page October report (which I have not read) on media’s current condition and strategies to salvage the legacy.

Reactions to the report have been widespread and range from CJR’s digitally published comments to media columnists such at The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, to even Twitter where the debate can be followed as #columbiajreport. An ironical footnote to the report’s release is it occurred in the same week The New York Times announced plans to reduce its newsroom by 100 positions, and the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported newspaper circulation declined almost 11% in 2009. Please see the accompanying table published in The New York Times.
So, how did Downie and Schudson incite this debate?

They conclude, “Fewer journalists are reporting less news in fewer pages, and the hegemony that near-monopoly metropolitan newspapers enjoyed during the last third of the twentieth century, even as their primary audience eroded, is ending.” They remind us that the number of newspaper editorial employees has dropped 33% from 60,000 in 1992 to 40,000 today.

But, you might ask, aren’t all things, including the business models of media moguls, shaped by evolution? Isn’t survival of the fittest a business world imperative? Not necessarily.

The duo quotes a Knight Foundation commission that suggests independent reporting “is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health.” In fact, it is this reporting, or accountability journalism as they call it, which “undergirds democracy” as it performs the press’ watchdog function. They believe that only legacy media and their outsized newsrooms can sustain this type of reporting.

While they celebrate the plethora of online news operations launched by entrepreneurs, philanthropists and universities, they conclude, “it is unlikely that any but the smallest of these news organizations can be supported” by current online revenue.

Given the enormity of responsibility the pair ascribes to legacy media, namely the perpetuation of democracy, their six strategies to save newspapers seem almost simplistic. These strategies include reduced taxes through nonprofit status, increased philanthropic donations, university-supported reporting, wider access to public databases, heightened pressure on public broadcasters to provide local news, and government funding of editorial functions.

Certainly, it’s highly unlikely the government will appoint a media czar to restructure an industry already well on its way to being reinvented by its more innovative practitioners and experimental consumers. Still, the report is a provocative analysis of media’s traditions, foibles and best practices. And it should be studied because it may inspire novel and enduring changes.

Dr. Richard Ganahl is a professor in mass communications at Bloomsburg University, PA. His column GANAHL ON MEDIA is an occasional column about media issues. Ganahl is a former media manager, publisher, entrepreneur and consultant. He is co-editor with Dr. Louisa Ha of the award-winning Webcasting Worldwide (2007), and the founding faculty advisor of BU Now, a multi-media, student-managed media blog site.