Reinventing the Newsroom

On Reconstructing Journalism (and Other Things)

Posted in Cultural Change, Going Local, Paid Content, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on October 19, 2009

Like most folks concerned with the future of newspapers, I spent a good chunk of the morning reading “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” the Columbia School of Journalism report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson. (It’s available here as a PDF.)

I’ve read the report, and I’m afraid I don’t have an immediate reaction that makes for a great blaring headline or a thundering blog post.

First off, I felt it was a terrific, dispassionate overview of how we came to this pass, and the many enterprises and undertakings that are experimenting with public-affairs journalism amid newspapers’ decay. And for much of the first half of the report I found myself filled with hope — hope to see the dots connected between the Voice of San Diego and Spot.Us and ProPublica and the HuffPo Investigative Fund and the Texas Tribune and MinnPost and NPR. I’d read about all those intriguing experiments, but piecemeal, and taking them in all at once made me think that surely some of these organizations will succeed, with their stories pointing the way for others. I also thought the report was evenhanded about blogs and the so-called MSM — it was refreshingly free of mother’s basement cliches and blogger revolution talk from the Too Much Red Bull crowd.

Which brings us to their conclusions. Here’s the clarion call:

The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone. American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment — as society has, at much greater expense, for public needs like education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation — through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.

It’s tempting to look at all the worthy experiments spotlighted by Downie and Schudson and conclude that at least some of them will work, and therefore it’s better to let the market sort things out, without getting the government involved or trying to replace press-baron journalism with an uncertain era of philanthropist-baron journalism. But what worries me is the potential “dip” involved, and the efficacy of the current model’s replacement as a watchdog on government and the powerful.

If we think that the next three to five years will see various non-profits and collectives and Web-only papers assume their place next to shrunken but still robust digital-first newspapers, and if we think that combination of news organizations will be able to pursue effective public-affairs journalism, then by all means let the market work. But what if it will take much longer than that? And what if the actors in this new media ecosystem prove too small to be “stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics and legal services, and present their work to a large public,” to quote from the report’s endorsement of newsrooms? If either or both of those fears are realized, what happens to public-affairs journalism and civic life for 10 years, or a generation, or longer?

This isn’t to doubt the promise of various post-print approaches; rather, it’s to worry about their effective reach. And if we’re sufficiently worried about the answers to those questions, I don’t see dismissing out of hand the proposals from Downie and Schudson for redistributing existing taxes or raising new ones in support of public-affairs journalism. Has government support of science or the arts tainted those endeavors? (Maybe it has. I admit this is new to me.)

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course — there’s a lot more to think about here. But however muddy it may be, that’s my initial reaction.

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Mathew Ingram offers a defense of serendipity in newspapers, finding value in being able to skim the newspaper and read about Muslim hockey players, Paul Shaffer, the band Gossip, city-council politics and retirees’ pension troubles, to name stories that caught his eye in a recent Globe and Mail. His column is a belated but heartfelt rejoinder to Clay Shirky’s assertion that the idea that someone doing a crossword puzzle may also want news about a Honduran coup or the Lakers is and always has been nonsense.

The debate reminded me of one of my favorite Real Time columns for the Online Journal — my attempt to demolish the myth that serendipity is one of print newspapers’ hallmarks, and missing online. As I argued then, print serendipity is limited by the layout of the paper and the reader’s own habits — if you toss aside the business section (or sports) in the morning, you’ve already limited the number of happy discoveries. And if you miss that great unexpected story today, you’re not going to find it in tomorrow’s paper.

The Web, however, is a marvelous serendipity engine — and newspapers harnessed it a long time ago with Most Popular. Most Popular is a Goldilocks path through the paper — stories chosen by a cohort of relatively similar readers, but not limited to a given section or day. (This is why I dislike “Most Read in This Section” or “People Who Read This Story Also Read” — they’re too fine-grained for serendipity.)

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My most-recent column for the National Sports Journalism Center looks at the very different (and very effective) habits of two Twitterers — the Daily News’s Ralph Vacchiano and Golf Digest’s Dan Jenkins. It’s a column about sportswriting, but hopefully there are some potentially useful thoughts for journalists of all stripes.

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