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Report Explores New Models for Journalism

October 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks to Nick Lemann of Columbia Journalism School and former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. about journalism's future.
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JEFFREY BROWN: We know the problems: newspapers folding right and left, local TV news viewership down, fewer reporters chasing stories. And we’re beginning to see some solutions, including new business models that use the Internet, citizen journalism, and more.

With the news business very much in flux right now, a new report presents the state of play and a possible future. It’s titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.”

Co-author Leonard Downie Jr. is with me. He’s former executive editor of “The Washington Post” and now a professor at Arizona State University. Also with us is Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, which commissioned the report.

Welcome to both of you.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR., former executive editor, “The Washington Post”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two main themes I team from this. First is the continuing loss of what you call accountability journalism. Explain what you mean.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: That’s the journalism that holds everybody with power in our lives and influence in our lives accountable to the rest of us.

Obviously, that includes governments, but not just that, the large corporations, the people who control, you know, aspects of our environment, just everything that goes on in our lives. And that’s a reporting that takes a lot of manpower, and it takes digging. It’s not easily done.

It’s not covering just events or speeches. As that — as newspapers get — newsrooms get smaller and smaller, that’s the reporting that we’re most concerned about being in danger. It’s also the kinds of reporting, though, that’s caused some journalists who had to leave newspapers to start some of these new news organizations you referred to, nonprofits in many cases, sometimes for-profit, that don’t have the legacy costs of printing and delivering newspapers, because they’re principally online.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nick Lemann, as the report says, that kind of journalism is not necessarily the way American journalism has always gone.

NICHOLAS LEMANN, dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But are we — we’re seeing a rise of advocacy journalism instead. What’s the danger of that?

NICHOLAS LEMANN: Journalism started as advocacy journalism. That was before reportorial journalism.

I like to say there’s three happy accidents in American history that the founders didn’t have in mind. One is public schools. One is everybody having the right to vote. And one is reporting — self-interested position, but there really weren’t reporters when the First Amendment was written.

And, gradually, printers morphed into newspaper owners, who weren’t dependent on political parties. And they learned how to provide information and build up paid circulation and then advertising. And that supported this really important and vital social function in a democracy, which is a corps of people who go out and hold, as Len said, the powerful accountable.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s being lost?

NICHOLAS LEMANN: Well, the number of people who have — who do that peaked in probably the 1990s, and has been going down a lot since then.

And it’s a really important function. It’s not advocacy. Advocacy is in a golden age right now because of the Internet. So, not to dis it, but it’s fine. Reporting is not fine because people need to be paid to do it. And the economic basis is eroding.

And this report very forcefully advocates shoring up the economic base through policy measures and experimentation with new business models, so we can get those boots on the ground in state capitals, big cities, all over the country.

Saving local news

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's the other theme. I mean, the other theme here, where you say this is most harming us, is local news.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes.

Yes. In so many cities around the country, the one local newspaper was a monopoly. It was dominant in local news coverage. And when it had a large newsroom, that was fine. In some cases, they did a good job, some cases, not such a good job.

But the problem is, now it's harder for any of them to do a good job, because their newsrooms are so much smaller than they were before. Many local newsrooms around the country are half the size they were before, even less than that, television newsrooms the same thing in cities around the country.

So, we're looking at these new startups, these new startups that are doing local reporting in various cities, sometimes at universities, sometimes on their own. And we want to find ways for the public to support them. That's what we're advocating in this report.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: National reporting has been very hard-hit, too, but it's not a case where there is only one entity doing it. In many big cities and towns of America, there's really only one entity dominating accountability journalism.

And, so, if it gets really devastated, nobody is there to replace them. It just doesn't get done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the proposals here that I think is important to talk about, because of where we're sitting, which is public television...

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes. Yes.

Boosting public media

JEFFREY BROWN: You have a lot to say about public broadcasting. You say, propose that -- quote -- "Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting."

This is -- well, go ahead. This is -- it sounds like you -- you think this is a real failing of public television.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes, I think it is, because public television and radio were organized to bring information to people in every community around the country.

And, in too many communities, the local public television station does no local news reporting. They may carry "The Lehrer Report," which is great for national/international reporting, but no local reporting. And very few local stations, radio stations, do local reporting. Some do. And those exceptions actually show what is possible.

Minnesota Public Radio does a vigorous job of covering news throughout the state of Minnesota, for example. But that's the rarity. So -- and we believe that there are funds that have gone into public television and radio that could be reoriented from some of the other purposes that they have right now, including sinking a lot of money into facilities, for example, that could be shifted to local news reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another proposal here that may be the most provocative one is a call for the FCC to raise money to help create a "national fund for local news."

Now, you didn't write this report, but that raises a lot of questions, right, about any time you get the government involved. How do you look at something like that? How should we think about something like that?

NICHOLAS LEMANN: I didn't invent this distinction. Somebody brought it up at an event we had about the report, but it's a very useful distinction.

There's a really important difference between public media and state media. This report is advocating the shoring-up and creation of new public media. And a lot of journalists leap to the conclusion that public media means Pravda and People's Daily. It doesn't.

It means BBC. It means your program. It means NPR. If you build the fire walls properly, having public funding supporting independent reporting doesn't mean that, inevitably, the reporting will be corrupted and turn into state propaganda.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: You can see as examples the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and even, despite some controversies, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, as well as Public Broadcasting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, very public controversies that came up with them.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes, but they have survived. They're still with us. They're still doing good work.

And it's because there are fire walls that were built in. And I'm not saying there might not be controversies that would occur with what we call the fund for local news. But we're talking about setting up state councils that would be the distributors of this money. And it wouldn't go to specific coverage. It wouldn't go to whether or not you're going to cover the mayor positively or negatively.

It would go instead to innovations in reporting that really matter to people. How can we cover the schools better? How can we get information out to the public better? How can we draw citizens into the reporting process better than we do?

JEFFREY BROWN: But is the conclusion...

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: These are the kinds of things we're talking about.

Broken marketplace

JEFFREY BROWN: But is the conclusion that the market just will not work?

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: It's not that the market won't work at all, but that the marketplace cannot support the level of journalism it was supporting before.

It was subsidized by advertising. Much of that advertising has dissipated in the Internet age, and is no longer available to help support as much reporting as it did before. So, we need to supplement that, layers of different kind of support for reporting.

And we're not just talking about government. We're talking about foundations. We're talking about the kinds of private donations that public radio and television get now. We're talking about a variety of different kinds of support, including that amount of advertising and sales of news that can still exist.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a last word.

You commissioned this thing. What do you want to see happen next?

NICHOLAS LEMANN: I would like to see -- there's already a huge discussion on this topic, as you know. I'd like to see this report kind of focus the discussion by making -- putting everything under one roof and making provocative recommendations. And I would like to see the debate move forward in a vigorous fashion into the policy realm.

I want to say one other thing. Market vs. public support, it's a both/and. It's not an either/or.

Creating these structures wouldn't prevent any experimentation or innovation on how to pay for news with pure market economics, even inside the same organization. Many organizations in this country seek markets and seek public funding and seek donations.

So, it's -- it's doing a lot of things at once. That's what we need to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Nick Lemann and Leonard Downie, thank you both very much.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: Thank you.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Thank you.