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Oct. 19, 2009, 1:12 p.m.

Downie and Schudson’s 6 steps toward “reconstructing” journalism

We are not lacking deep lamentations and grand plans for the future of journalism (clever commentary is abundant as well). New additions to this canon appear weekly, and many have a reactionary bent with lots of chest thumping and hand wringing. It’s often a bit much — which is why the appearance of a long-view, measured report is a welcome palate cleanser. 

The Reconstruction of American Journalism” (download PDF here) sets its sights wholly on local news. It’s built on the thesis that the accountability journalism found in local newspapers offers the most value to communities, and the most risk if it disappears. 

Beyond the focus on local newspaper coverage, the report is also notable for what it largely ignores: co-authors Leonard Downie, Jr., former Washington Post executive editor, and Michael Schudson, Columbia University professor and MacArthur fellow, offer little significant discussion on advertising, subscriptions, or for-profit models. Paywalls and micropayments get only passing mentions. The report’s six closing recommendations are instead built around private donations, foundation grants, and the repositioning of academic and government systems. Seeing as most journalism is still funded by market-driven models, this is an interesting comment-by-omission.

C.W. Anderson, research assistant on the report and a contributor to this site, told me the report’s intent is to find solutions that can maintain the previous model and its accompanying accountability journalism.

“There is no market solution obvious right now that will provide the same level of subsidy to journalism that existed under the monopoly paper model,” Anderson said. “So on some level, all the back and forth about new business models is fighting over table scraps. And so that allowed us to quickly return to the question of what we should do given actually existing cases of market failure.”

I spent a couple hours parsing the report’s high points and jotting down observations (see below). As is always the case with this kind of thing, a cursory overview is no substitute for your own in-depth read.

Reconstruction No. 1: Make the nonprofit designation easier and clearer

The considerable discussion around the nonprofit route clearly signals traction for this model. Unfortunately, passionate discourse cannot overcome outdated qualifications and slow government adaptation. The report’s authors say news operations “substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs” should get the thumbs-up for nonprofit status. (There are different opinions on whether this requires new legislation.) In addition, confusion around the low-profit limited liability company (L3C) designation needs to be cleared up so funding organizations are comfortable making qualified donations.

Reconstruction No. 2: Support ongoing coverage over one-off projects

J-Lab recently estimated that since 2005, foundations have pledged $128 million in grants for journalism and information projects. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but the authors of the report argue that foundation funding should be repositioned toward continuous reporting rather than one-off projects. The day-to-day stuff ultimately has more public value than shiny limited-term initiatives. Of course, an open-ended effort requires a semblance of sustainability, and that’s a concept most applicable in the for-profit realm. It’ll be interesting to see if the semi-commercial mindset bubbling up at the Knight Foundation eventually dovetails with funds for ongoing reporting. 

Reconstruction No. 3: The CPB needs to step it up

We’ve recently noted the shifting relationship between for-profit national organizations and local affiliates. Some companies see an upside to centralizing control in the corporate offices and then using the efficiencies of digital delivery to serve targeted communities. Whether that works or not is to be determined, but the report notes that a similar centralized/localized model could be enacted on the nonprofit side by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). 

The authors pull no punches when it comes to the CPB. They recommend a portion of the CPB’s budget be allocated toward local news coverage (actual reporting, not just debate and analysis). Dipping a toe into the Draconian realm, they also suggest duplicative stations and signals should be consolidated and station management incapable of “reorienting their missions” needs to be pushed out. Heck, they even want to change the name to The Corporation for Public Media.

Reconstruction No. 4: Universities already run teaching hospitals, why not news orgs?

Partnerships between news outlets and universities aren’t new, and they appear to be going through a metamorphosis of sorts, with investors, public/private organizations, and schools pooling resources for hybrid newsgathering. The report recommends bold and compelling steps beyond current efforts: the authors want to see full-fledged, year-round news operations run by faculty and students. Similar organizations already exist to some degree, but the picture painted by the report’s authors looks more like a teaching hospital than a college-based newsroom. 

Reconstruction No. 5: Use FCC fees to create a Fund for Local News

This point won’t go over well with companies under the Federal Communication Commission’s purview. The report says money from telephone surcharges, FCC license fees and spectrum auctions should be pooled into a Fund for Local News — sort of a National Endowment for the Arts for the journalism set. The authors acknowledge political pressures and the potential for controversy, but they note a history of organizations that have “weathered those storms.” If the intricacies of this type of fund can be worked out, it could blaze a path toward the type of ongoing coverage the authors call for in point No. 2.

Reconstruction No. 6: There’s no such thing as too much public information

Calls for openness, transparency and access to copious databases is what you’d expect to hear at a Gov 2.0 keynote. This report notes, however, that those same qualities can benefit news organizations. Under the banners of crowdsourcing, pro-am collaborations, and “adjunct journalism,” the report advocates for deeper connectivity between the audience and journalists. There’s nothing particularly new here — plenty of projects already utilize variations on these same themes — but a renewed call to arms is never a bad thing.

POSTED     Oct. 19, 2009, 1:12 p.m.
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