Reconstructing journalism

One of the most comprehensive reports on the future of modern journalism is now online, prior to Tuesday’s official release by the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University.

“The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” written by Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a Journalism School professor, is very much about American journalism, but has relevance elsewhere. The report offers hope for the “abundant opportunity in the future of journalism” amid an account of the grim problems. It also proposes solutions that are sure to be seen as radical, especially in the U.S.: government funding of local news, and making public broadcasting provide local news.

Downie and Schudson were commissioned “to take a comprehensive, clearheaded look at and assess the enormous changes taking place in American journalism and to make recommendations for the future.” Downie and Schudson write, in a column  published today by The Washington Post, that the journalism which holds those with power and influence accountable and is vital to American democratic life “is now at risk, along with the advertising-supported economic foundations of newspapers.

“American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting — as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy. It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including print newspapers. What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”

Early reaction to what is very much a policy wonk industry report was fairly bland; later responses included some strident criticism. Some samples:

David Carr of The New York Times noted the complexity of the solutions in the report, and summed up the traditional media crisis this way: “what part of the implosion in advertising revenue is cyclical (ad buying is suffering because of the recession) and what part is secular (we’re making horse buggies).”

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post declared that he’s in the camp opposing government funding of journalism, and instead focused on the report’s optimism, writing, “the free market, in its halting, haphazard way, seems to be coughing up some money for new kinds of journalism.”

Mac Slocum of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard wrote, approvingly, “the appearance of a long-view, measured report is a welcome palate cleanser.” Slocum provided a quick summary of the report — and remarked on what it largely ignores: “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.”

Jeff Jarvis at called the report “A epitaph for the journalism business instead of a plan for recovery.” Jarvis said Downie and Schudson gave up give up on news as a business, and described their call for Americans to take collective responsibility for news reporting as “their consequent desperation.” Buzzmachine does not like this idea, which Jarvis calls:  “Collective responsibility. Socialized journalism. This is the ultimate in broccoli journalism: You are not only forced to read what journalists say is good for you but you are now forced to pay for it through taxation.” He added that he has “no complaint” with some of the report’s other suggestions.