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Report Explores New Models for Journalism

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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    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.


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


    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.


    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.


    But are we — we're seeing a rise of advocacy journalism instead. What's the danger of that?


    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.


    And that's being lost?


    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.