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The Future of Journalism Is Not in the Past

The cacophony of the blogosphere is dizzying and overwhelmingly opinion, but it is a vast improvement over a public sphere dominated by corporate media.
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Reframing the Debate Over how to "Save" Journalism

The question of "How to save Journalism?" is a front-burner issue, as major metropolitan dailies, like the Rocky Mountain News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, implode. Calls for bailouts in the tens of billions of dollars have gone up, even from critics of the industry, and some are calling for further relaxation of limits on media ownership so newspapers and television stations can merge, presumably to improve the financial prospects of both.

After excoriating the commercial mass media for decades, should we spend huge sums of public money to prop it up or abandon our concern about large mass media outlets and chains dominating local markets?

We need to step back and ask some tough questions. What do we mean by "good" journalism and why should we "save" it? What is the problem with the newspaper business? Will saving newspapers save journalism? Will allowing mergers solve the economic problem or improve the quality of content? What alternatives are available?

Why Does Journalism Need to Be Saved?

The premise of the effort to save newspapers is that journalism provides a public function that needs to be preserved. "Good" journalism is a public good because it creates value far beyond the revenue stream it generates. The benefit to society is supposed to be its function as a watchdog on both the public and private sectors -- disciplining waste, fraud and abuse -- and as a source of information for the public about important issues of public policy. Because it is a public good, commercial markets tend to under-produce it, so it needs non-market support. In the United States the mass media has long been subsidized, starting with low postal rates to support print media in the 19th century and running through free exclusive licenses to use the public airwaves to broadcast radio and TV in the 20th century.

What Is the Underlying Problem?

To deal with the crisis of journalism, we have to recognize key characteristics of the future journalism space. The majority of newspaper revenues come from local advertising. Newspaper advertising revenues are driven by readership, which has been declining. However, advertising revenues have been declining more rapidly than readership; classified advertising has been declining more rapidly than general advertising; and local newspaper advertising has been declining more rapidly than national activity. Thus, there is a migration of revenue to other media -- the Internet, local cable TV and direct mail -- that deliver more targeted or more compelling advertising. In 2000, the revenues of these three advertising media were just 12 percent larger than newspaper advertising; by 2007 they were 82 percent larger.

The future is digital: text, not print; viral, not one-to-many; and, in critical ways, more global and less local. For newspapers that means that geography does not matter as much as it once did. Functional specialization replaces geographic specialization.

Much of the journalism we lament losing is statewide, regional, national and international. If an issue is not inherently local, such as a school board election, it will have difficulty commanding resources in the local media because "outsiders" can now use digital distribution to aggregate a larger audience. Local papers will simply not be able to compete in reporting on global, national or statewide issues and they have begun to outsource that function.

Newspapers in medium to large cities that historically covered local, statewide, regional, national and some global news are in the worst shape because the new environment impacts their business model most. In the digital age, they cannot maintain adequate advertising revenue -- losing ground to cable and web-based alternatives to classified ads -- to sustain adequate investment in such broad-based reporting. They lose competitively in the national and global markets to the big national newspapers and wire services.

Small town papers may fare better because they face less competition in small local markets, but those local markets will not support the journalism that covers statewide, regional, and global issues. Large national and international papers and services may fare better, since they can aggregate demand. It is the hole in the middle where the impact is greatest.

Would the Proposals to "Save" Journalism by Saving Newspapers Work?

The assumption that subsidies or mergers will save journalism economically in the face of the powerful underlying economic forces or ensure the delivery of journalism's public good is dubious at best.

The commercial mass media newspaper model was failing to properly fulfill its public function long before its economic model collapsed. Any subsidy might push the economic day of reckoning off, but it will not solve the long-term economic problem. The most successful commercial papers are not necessarily the best. We could get more of the same journalism we have had, maybe even lower quality, as newspapers compete for more scarce advertising dollars.

Concentrating large media voices to shore up commercial media has not been an economic panacea. The large multimedia chains and cross-owned properties are having just as much trouble as stand-alone entities, and mergers have tended to reduce the quality of journalism in the past. The efficiencies that merging parties project will be gained by shrinking the production of news. The amount of news produced declines, but the number of journalists declines even more, squeezing the remaining journalists. If advertising dollars continue to shrink and attention continues to migrate to other media, cutting costs will not replace lost revenue and the burden will be born by shrinking the worst performing line of business, which is likely to be print journalism. One thing is certain, with shrinking markets and overstretched reporters, the quality of journalism (i.e. good reporting), and the types of journalism that best represent the public goods -- investigative journalism -- will decline. Thus, mergers between newspapers and TV are not a solution for the crisis of newspapers or the problems of journalism.

The dilemma from the public good's point of view is the fact that the political importance of the commercial mass media has always exceeded their economic significance and economic resources are shifting more rapidly than political influence. Newspaper and television are still the mass market media and carry substantial political clout. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on national advertising during the recent presidential election and the role that newspaper endorsements play, especially in early primaries, are reminders of the clout of the commercial mass media. The counterbalance to the commercial mass media has not fully developed, either economically, to sustain "good" journalism," or politically, to blunt the power of traditional commercial outlets.

At this key moment, we should not prop up the incumbent media, or give in to its demands to concentrate, which will extend a model that is irretrievably broken, economically and politically. We should focus public policy and citizen action on building the alternatives.

Are New Models Emerging for a Changed Information Environment?

The commercial newspaper market in the 21st century media environment leaves substantial gaps in coverage that need to be filled. The digital age has witnessed an explosion of alternative media and citizen expression that did not exist in the age of 20th century mass media.

The cacophony of the blogosphere is dizzying and overwhelmingly opinion, but it is a vast improvement over a public sphere dominated by corporate media. Traditional media have begun to utilize this communications mechanism, with reporters blogging and bloggers reporting on traditional media web sites, but it is the independent, citizen and community media that provide the seeds of an alternative journalism.

These alternatives tend to be structured viral communications, in which a light touch of hierarchy can go a long way. The examples are well known, beyond blogging, which tends to be the least organized form of expression. We find things like Wikis, online posts, collaborative production and distribution in peer-to-peer networks, opens source software, crowd sourcing, and new forms of copyright, like the Creative Commons, etc.

The critical challenge for these outlets is to become trusted intermediaries. The critical challenge for society is to figure out how to tap into the immense energy of the public sphere in cyberspace while preserving key journalistic attributes someplace within a much-expanded public sphere. To build trust the new journalism will have to produce a steady stream of output that readers find authoritative, correct and useful. To ensure the quality of output, they will need to routinize the roles of reporter and editor and find ways to ensure that the reporters and editors have resources to do their jobs. If we equate good journalism with careful reporting, editing and opportunity for response, how do we map those basic characteristics of journalism into the new media space?

We can debate whether those attributes are the key to "good" journalism, but even if we take that as a given, it is the journalistic functions that matter, not the form. We must be willing to recognize other ways of performing traditional functions. How can contributed and paid labor, professional and citizen mix? How much editorial control could be applied without destroying the wiki essence? What models of editorial oversight best balance the goal of quality content and democratic input (lieutenants, councils, member rankings, member voting)? What decision-making management structures and group processes can promote progress toward completion of tasks, determine critical tasks and screen acceptable solutions, not unlike the functions of editorial boards and editors.

Some parts of the 20th century landscape can be mobilized in support of the new journalism. Consumer Reports, a well-known nonprofit journalistic enterprise, fearing a declining revenue stream from print publishing, has transformed itself into a hugely successful mass online subscription business. It has a trusted brand to build on, but there is no reason that other nonprofit brands cannot be built in cyberspace to support subscription models. Among the existing one-to-many media distribution models, those that are closest to the emerging citizen-media, like public governmental and educational cable channels on the TV side and low power FM on the radio side, have never been properly funded, but they have grown on the basis of a direct connection to the local community.

In other words, the participatory base of citizen and community media, a tradition that existed in America before the industrialization of the media and journalism in the past century, is a superior starting point for building a new journalism.

Can Public Subsidies Speed the Transition to a Good Journalism Model?

Just as federal Recovery Act stimulus funds will support computer centers and communications networks, a media stimulus package could support new local news centers and news services. Just as IT health and education funds seek to build a new infrastructure for public service in their areas, IT media funding can build infrastructure in the journalism space. Public subsidies can be directed to alternative forms of media and journalism with the objective of establishing financially viable new forms of production and distribution of journalistic content.

No one can predict which models will succeed, but in the rapidly changing environment, solutions that preserve the past are more likely to fail or make matters worse. The outcome will be much better if we confront the right and hard questions from the get-go in order to arrive at a sustainable journalism that serves its function in society. If we intend to build an institution of journalism as the four estate in the 21st century, we need to build it from the fresh clay of alternative media in cyberspace and the moment of the collapse of 20th century journalism is the ideal time to start.

A more detailed analysis can be found here.

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