Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Saving American Journalism in the Digial Age, with 19th-Century Solutions

I just finished my first reading of the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Reconstruction of American Journalism” report by Leonard Downie, Jr., and Michaeal Schudson.

It is a curious document. For the most part, they offer little hope or solace to traditional “national” media, ranging from widely-distributed newspapers such as the LA Times, the New York Times, and others, to papers owned by national chains to broadcast media including radio and television, at least in their current configuration. Instead, they pin the hopes of saving journalism – not one particular communication medium – on a mixture of local, regional and national news organizations funded by private and public foundations, universities (which would provide not money, but in-kind donations of labor) individuals, public, and private enterprises more willing to collaborate than compete, and a new governmental bureaucracy meant to distribute funds generated from taxes on telecom companies and internet service providers to fund local news projects.

For Uncharted’s purposes, the report outlines a few things we might try, a few things we are already doing but, frankly, for us and for most others like us seeking answers to our funding questions, leaves the big question – where will the money come from – unanswered.

I’ll hit some of the highlights from their recommendations, the go on to discuss a few things that might impact Uncharted or are already impacting the way we’re doing business.

“To support diverse sourced of independent news reporting,” they write, “we specifically recommend:”

• Authorization from the IRS or Congress to allow news organizations devoted to public affairs to be created or converted into non-profit organizations, funded by foundations and any other source of income they may find.

• Philanthropists and foundations should increase their support of news organizations, specifically towards those who are active in public affairs and accountability reporting.

• Public radio and television should be encouraged to produce more local news, through reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and increased public funding for CPB.

• Universities should become coursed of local, state and specialized news as part of their educational missions, through operating their own news organizations, hosting platforms for non-profit news organizations and providing faculty positions for active journalists. They should become labs for digital innovation in news sharing and gathering.

• The Federal Communications Commission should establish a Fund for Local News, from taxes (existing or new) imposed on telecom users, TV and radio broadcast licensees and/or internet service providers, with the funds distributed via competition through state Fund for Local News Councils.

What is interesting with their recommendations is that most of the fingers are pointing to different ways to get money, rather than, as reported in the narrative sections of the report itself, finding different ways to get professionals, the audience, and those with the money to cooperate on forging a new business model that incorporates the three guiding influences Clay Shirky believes are affecting how the news media – specifically newspapers – are being impacted by the Internet; those being a broken business model, offering intellectual bundles of content rather than economic bundles of content, and the rise of more and more individuals who want to participate in journalism.

The recommendations may be admirable long-term goals, but it’s clear the industry needs changes that can be implemented more quickly and more in terms of taking advantage of what Josh Marshall of the talking Points Memo says in the report: “Marshall described TPM as ‘narrating with reporting and aggregation’ – including the involvement of ‘an audience with high interest and expertise. We have a consistent, iterative relationship with our audience – people telling us where to look,’ Marshall said. ‘But all that information, stories, and sources are checked professionally by our journalists.’” That sounds kind a familiar, as this is pretty much the blueprint Uncharted is using for our professional/amateur approach.

First of all, the recommendations do offer changes in the generic news business model of depending on subscription and advertising revenue to pay the bills. But buried in the proposals is the fact that such revenue streams will still be part of a news organization’s bottom line, though a smaller part. No resolution is offered to counter the capricious winds that affect how philanthropists and foundations parcel out their funds year to year, nor to the opposition that reallocated or new taxes on telecom services, licensees or internet service providers will face. I worked at Qwest for a year (our regional Baby Bell) and can tell you that one of the things people complained about the most on their bills were the state and federal taxes, few of which they understood. I’m not sure a new tax to support local news foundations would go over all that well, no matter how well-intentioned the end use of that tax money might be.

It’s interesting to note that two of the five recommendations include increased government funding for news through reorganized government bureaus, from the Federal Communications Commission to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While it’s clear that nationally-funded entities such as the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio could do more local reporting, it’s an odd contradiction, especially when the report states “Most Americans have a deep distrust of direct government involvement or political influence in independent news reporting, a sentiment we share. But this should not preclude government support for news reporting any more than it has for the arts, the humanities, and sciences, all of which receive some government support.” Given current White House marginalization of Fox News, the most-popular of the cable news networks, due to what some critics call overt or covert influence from the Republican Party in newsgathering, it’s hard to see how government money, even flowing to locally-controlled news bureaus, could avoid such criticism from not only the “most Americans” mentioned in the report, but from news organizations who might see such local news bureaus as competition, rather than collaborators. Oddly enough, the report quotes Scott Lewis, publishers of a recently-launched local online news agency, the Voice of San Diego, as saying: “We don’t count on mass traffic, but rather a level of loyalty. We’re seeking loyal people like those who give to the opera, museums, or the orchestra because they believe they should be sustained.” Which audience would we rather have: The disaffected audience who mistrusts our content because they had to pay for it through some governmental intervention whether they wanted our content or not, or the audience that willingly pays and, because of such loyalty, willingly participates in adding to what content we have? The solutions offered here heavily lean towards the first kind of audience, the mass audience that Alan Mutter over at the Newsosaur blog says just doesn’t exist for newspapers any more.

So it’s clear on a grand scale – as the authors of the repot admit – that there are no good solutions at present. They do agree on four points:

• Financial fragility is the common thread among all organizations seeking to find a new news business model.

• Startup staffs are small, underpaid or volunteer, with their growth and impact still to be determined.

• The free market will determine what experiments are successful.

• News organization managers “are best positioned to shape and test responses to [experiments]"

Basically, I think for mainstream news organizations, this report is insightful, but offers solutions that are untested and politically questionable. But what is oddest to me is that while the narrative section of the report emphasizes collaboration and experimentation, the solutions offered offer old-school solutions that place emphasis not on collaboration or experimentation, but on offering those already in charge of news gathering and dissemination survival strategies that don’t take collaboration or experimentation into account, and certainly doesn’t look at solutions that could take advantage of how the audience is seeking, consuming, and participating in the news-gathering and dissemination processes.

Tom Grubishich at the Online Journlalism Review says it best:
Perhaps it's unfair to hammer the Downie-Schudson report too hard. It's symptomatic of what passes for analysis of the crisis in American journalism. We get too much rhetoric. The rhetoric is often well phrased – after all, it's usually written by journalists – but we don't need more rhetoric, however polished it may be. What we need is more case-method and other critical examination.
So forget the solutions offered. Instead, let’s look at what we can glean from the narrative section to help us with Uncharted, by way of new experiments or affirmation of current experimentation:

Reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative, Downie and Schudson say. We know this. Let’s build on that:

The report credits some news organizations for charging for online content. “Although they have not attracted many paid Web-only subscribers, their publishers say they have so far protected much of their print circulation and advertising,” the report says. The significant word there is “protect.” If we want to charge for something, we have to look at charging as a way to protect an asset, not as a way to raise revenue. We can charge for unlimited uploads, as Flickr does, not to earn money, but to avoid or at least subsidize huge bills for server space. We can’t hope to pay all of our bills through such payments, but we can, with a token payment of, say, $25 a year, protect ourselves from excess server charges.

The report credits collaborations, ranging from exploring opportunities with Google searches to forming partnerships with people with pockets deeper than ours to pay the bills. Could Uncharted not, for example, and for a fee, offer state and regional tourism bureaus a window to our readers through a “commercial” profile on Uncharted, featuring content produced by the bureaus, for mass consumption. They might pay for access to our audience, especially if we allow commercial access for a fee and are on the lookout for individuals using the site for commercial gain.

More importantly, we need to build audiences on loyalty, as the Lewis from the Voice of San Diego mentions.

The report celebrates organizations experimenting with professional/amateur journalism. We’re doing this, but could do more.

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