Jul 1 2009

Building a Better Journalism

Media activists and scholars share their ideas

Extra! asked progressive media activists and scholars to share their ideas on how to make journalism’s future better than its present; the following are some of the highlights.

The one thing that we should do in the face of the erosion of commercial journalism is invest heavily in libraries. That means we should publicly support the human capital, technological tools, and collections of public, school and university libraries.The problem is not journalism per se. It’s the health of the public sphere, of which quality journalism is a major part. So if we accept that the landscape we have grown accustomed to over the past 50 years is ebbing rather quickly, we should do the following. We should invest in and support an environment that will enable experimentation and the emergence of new models and voices.

The Internet, as we know it, has been pretty effective as a medium. But we should bolster policies meant to foster innovation and cheap, easy acquisition of knowledge. So I have proposed what I call a “Human Knowledge Project.” It takes a broad, environmental approach to the idea that we need to infuse the public sphere with resources, energy and incentives. And we should remove impediments like overly protective and anti-competitive intellectual property powers, coercive Internet practices that “pick winners” by favoring some content over others (i.e., violates network neutrality), and the general problem that the wealthy and better educated can leverage those advantages in the digital environment (i.e., close the “digital divide”).

Because libraries are increasingly the site at which poor Americans seek knowledge and opportunity via the Internet, we should take advantage of the network of libraries throughout the country to connect people with knowledge in the richest and most effective ways possible. In addition, if we increase funding for libraries, they will spend more on the products that support the public sphere, such as journalism, book publishing, video, recordings and software.

So the “Human Knowledge Project” gets beyond the limited focus of how we might get newspapers to make a profit again. And it gets beyond blaming Craigslist or Huffington Post for the downfall of commercial journalism. It take a broad and deep approach in hopes of serving the public’s need for knowledge in the cheapest way and thus fosters a flowering of creativity and civic engagement.


Siva Vaidhyanathan
Media scholar, University of Virginia

The journalism profession has an ideal opportunity to reinvent itself. Although faced with financial crisis, reporting is more essential than ever to ensuring the public’s right to know and the future of American democracy. The challenge is to find new business models that transform journalism from a corporate to a populist model–one that reflects the economic realities of the Internet as well as the participatory opportunities of social networking technologies. A populist model based on new trust mechanisms has the potential to produce more accessible, inclusive and robust journalism. But it also shifts more responsibility to citizens as both producers and consumers of news, capable of generating stories and discriminating about the authenticity of sources. Without the imprimatur of well-known imprints, readers need to develop more sophisticated information literacy skills so they can find, evaluate, use and produce sources effectively. Librarians and teachers can help reinvent journalism by helping the public learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the true from the untrue, the fact from the rumor.

–Nancy Kranich
Former president, American Library Association

Outlaw pundits.

–Jill Nelson

The one thing we can do as media advocates and activists is to shepherd journalism from where it is today to where we would like it to be. We now know that the challenges journalism faces are much more complex on so many levels. The journalism landscape is literally changing from every angle and every perspective.

Technology is one agent of change that is having a profound impact on journalism. Some see technology as fragmenting traditional journalism across new information platforms and new participants. Others see technology as a way to be more inclusive and democratizing. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that traditional journalism as we know it, is undergoing tremendous change and transition.

One of the challenges we have on our hands today is finding a way to pay for good, solid journalism in this changing environment; another is to maintain, sustain and grow our audience. We also must decide how we want journalism to be defined in the future and how we must reinvent the profession with business/revenue models that will muster the challenges we face today.

It is time to openly discuss among ourselves whether hybrid models that merge the reporting of information to the processing of information are worthy of our consideration, or whether the stubborn optimism of our newsrooms will eventually lead us to new innovative thinking about whether news information should be a product or service, whether news without walls offers new opportunities to connect or disconnect society in an environment where news consumption has become individualized and specialized, and whether we can maintain news credibility in a landscape that has become experimental and innovative.

Whatever the expectations or doubts, we know for sure that change has come to journalism. Change can either shape journalism according to the winds, or we can help to manage that change by articulating the values of what journalism means and has meant to our communities: how it holds our governments accountable, how it connects us on important issues and how it encourages our democracy to remain true and strong.

No one knows exactly how journalism will be defined for the next era. However, certain values embedded in legacy journalism — journalistic ethics and standards, credibility, truth and balance – are values we must make certain survives this transition amidst the onslaught of niche news markets once dominated by large companies and producers.

As citizens of a democracy, we are also the guardians of societies’ rights, assets, principles, and values. As such, our role is to guide and safeguard journalism every step of the way through this transition of change.

–Loris Ann Taylor
Executive director, Native Public Media

The most important thing we can do to save journalism is to find a way for the existing print news media to find a way to be profitable in a solely electronic environment. The revenue from on-line advertising has not proven adequate to simply move the print model to the Web. Micropayments are probably one part of the picture, as are devices like Amazon’s Kindle and the iPod, where consumers pay for content in smaller chunks than a current newspaper or magazine subscription.

Although the private sector may not be the whole story, I would be concerned to rely only upon philanthropic support for our news. The existing non-profit sector is already strapped for resources. Moreover, historically a private company with a desire to get at the news has been invaluable in policing democracy, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. A journalism sector that is as diverse as possible in its business models and revenue sources will be the most likely to provide long-term stability and innovation, as well as excel as our much-needed fourth estate.

–Cheryl Leanza,
Managing Director, United Church of Christ

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the current crisis in journalism. It’s going to take a variety of strategies, experiments and smart policies that expand access to new technology while keeping professional journalists on the beat. But at least one thing is clear: We can’t leave the same people who created this crisis in charge of fixing it.

Traditional media have been battered by the rise of the Internet, the end of local advertising monopolies, and the deepening economic downturn. But the industry’s most serious wounds are self-inflicted. Just a few years ago the average profit margin for newspapers was 20 percent — with some raking in twice as much or more. Local TV and radio owners were making plenty of money, too. But the big media companies were making big profits, but they didn’t invest in the quality of their products or their coverage; they didn’t innovate to contend with the changing media landscape. Instead, they just bought up more newspapers, TV and radio stations. While our regulators in Washington rubber-stamped these mega-mergers, the media companies took on massive amounts of debt. Now they’re drowning in it.

But the industry’s dirty secret is that most newspapers are still profitable. That doesn’t mean broadsheets are the future. But if Washington hadn’t looked the other way as these deals went through, newsrooms might have 10 years to experiment, adjust and adapt–instead of what feels like 10 minutes. Now the same companies are coming back to Washington with their hands out calling for more media consolidation, asking for an antitrust exemption so they can collude on the pricing of Internet content, and begging for more of the same bad medicine that got us so sick in the first place.

We don’t need another industry bailout. Hiding from Google or suing bloggers for quoting you does not count as innovation. We won’t find the answers to this crisis behind closed doors on Capitol Hill or at secret industry meetings among top media executives. We need a national journalism strategy that recognizes newsgathering is a public service–not just another commodity. That strategy needs to be developed and debated in the light of day.


–Craig Aaron
Senior Program Director, Free Press

Christine Lewis is an immigrant from Trinidad, a nanny in New York City, and a regular contributor to Free Speech Radio News. She is the future of journalism. So, too, is Kyra Joseph, editor of her college newspaper and aspiring rap-diva. Ms. Brenda Dardar Robichaux, the Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation in Louisiana, which just received a full-power radio broadcast license, is also the future of journalism. They, along with countless others around the country, are learning the craft, acquiring media infrastructure, and injecting critical perspectives into the pubic discourse at the local and national levels.

The current crisis in journalism is an opportunity to make an institution that is so essential to our democracy much more democratic itself. We know how enriching journalism can be for people who participate in making it, and how flawed it is when it is limited to a privileged few. Excellent journalistic practice does not need to remain the product of an elite college education. Why not start in grade six when many kids are already using smart phones and MySpace to document the world around them? Why not equip community organizers with the know-how of the five Ws so that they can bring their solutions on pressing local issues to a broader audience?

We need to raise the bar on quality by teaching the craft of journalism in public schools, community centers and church halls, and then lower the bar on participation by building public computer labs, deploying local broadband networks and acquiring broadcast licenses to make these very locations the newsrooms of tomorrow.

Citizen-led media movements have taken advantage of technological innovations to begin rewriting the rules of participation and content syndication. Community journalists have, on occasion, outperformed their better-resourced, better-trained colleagues at local newspapers, but we can all do better. We can fulfill the promise of citizen journalism by closing the gap in skills and access that continue to keep some people from participating in the essential institution of journalism. If we are successful, the future of journalism will be written not by the experts of today, but by the new reporters like Christine, Kyra, and Ms. Brenda.

–Deepa Fernandes and Joshua Breitbart
People’s Production House

For the first time in history, world-wide human communication is a reality, and that communication, through the Internet, has fostered a new definition of “news”: a picture, massively and often chaotically delivered, of the daily lives and struggles of people told in their own words. Truth has become as a mass activity and is helping us define and develop the society in which we live.

But there is a fierce effort by some institutions to stop that. While people of all cultures, backgrounds and resources are using the Internet’s technology to exchange vital information, YouTube, Google, Microsoft and so many others are pursuing complete control of that information and unprecedented power over our future. Never has freedom of information been so robust and so threatened.

Our priority, as progressive activists, is to continue to develop alternate tools for mass information, combat all repression of Internet information, organize people to use Internet tools more robustly and effectively and aggressively support the broadening of democratic, non-centralized sources of information. We win there and humanity will create this better world we all deserve.

–Alfredo Lopez
Co-director, May First/People Link

Good journalism is a public good that creates a positive externality because it can create value far beyond the revenue stream it generates. Good journalism creates a benefit to society by watch dogging both the public and private sectors–disciplining waste fraud and abuse – and informing the public about important issues of public policy. Because it is a public good, commercial markets tend to under-produce it, so it needs non-market support.

The current crisis of corporate journalism is being driven in part by the digital communications revolution, which not only lowers the cost but also dramatically democratized the production of content. It would be a grave mistake to prop up corporate journalism up with public funds or policy changes that seek to restore its dominant positions in the public sphere.

In the United States the mass media has always been subsidized, starting with low postal rates to support print media in the 19th century and running through free monopoly licenses to broadcast in the 20th century.

At this critical juncture, public subsidies should be directed to alternative forms of media and journalism with the objective of establishing financially viable new forms of production and distribution of journalistic content. Thus, funding should not be permanent, but be in the form of multi-year seed grants to cover start-up costs and overcome the hurdle of achieving scale. It should encourage experimentation and reward diversity of owners and approaches.

Just as federal Recovery Act stimulus funds will support computer centers and communications networks, a media stimulus package could support new local news centers and news services. The reporters recently laid off by newspapers would be a pool of editorial talent.

People and organizations who perceive the need for change first and adapt quickest prosper. Journalism is changing and it needs to change. The newspaper industry has been one of the laggards and is, itself, a major obstacle to change. After excoriating the commercial mass media for decades, we should not be spending huge sums of public money to prop it up, especially at a moment when technology has opened the door to citizen-based and nonprofit alternatives.

No one can predict which models will succeed, but in the rapidly changing environment, it is very likely that solutions that preserve the past are will fail or make matter worse. The outcome will be much better, if we confront the right and hard questions from the get-go in order to arrive at a sustainable journalism that serves it function in society.

–Mark Cooper
Fellow, Donald McGannon Communication Research Center

Journalists are not part of an elite, akin to movie stars, anchorpersons and hedge fund managers. We are part of the working class–which is exactly how journalists have seen themselves through most of American history–as working stiffs. We can be underpaid, we can be jerked around, we can be laid-off arbitrarily–just like any auto-worker or mechanic or hotel housekeeper or flight attendant.

But there is this difference: A laid-off auto-worker doesn’t go into his or her garage and assemble cars by hand. But we– journalists–we can’t stop doing what we do!

As long as there is a story to be told, an injustice to be exposed, a mystery to be solved, we will find a way to do it…. A recession won’t stop us. A dying industry won’t stop. Even poverty won’t stop us because we are all on a mission here.

–Barbara Ehrenreich

Take a look at foundation funding and philanthropic funding. The endowments of liberal foundations (I’ve got a very broad term of liberal) such as the Ford Foundation far outweigh the resources of conservative foundations. Those resources are literally in the billions of dollars. But their funding of independent media is pitiful, partly because of the fetishism of wanting measurable short-term results. In fact, some liberal foundations explicitly say that they will not fund media projects. When I see those words written, I say: How can we possibly think about social change if we in fact refuse to struggle around one of the central aspects where power is manifested which is in the symbolic realm.?

And before you agree with me too readily–this is the part that people are not going to like—let’s examine our individual media consumption as well. Independent media have been severely under-funded relative to how much individuals give to the corporate media. If you have cable, and I include myself in this when I think about where I spend my money, my media money, if you have cable or satellite TV or a connection to the Internet, you are directly funding corporate media. People think nothing of spending $100 or more a month on cable and the internet. And yet independent media has to beg to get a few scraps.

I just did the math on this. It’s sometimes really good to fantasize—fantasy is always a prerequisite for social change–let’s presume you could get a million people on the Left to take media issues seriously. That’s actually, given that MoveOn has three and a half million members, and a lot of other sites have membership in the millions, that is not an unreasonable thing. Let’s say you could get a million people to rethink their media consumption and their media expenditures. Let’s say you could get a million people to spend $100 a month on independent media. If you don’t have a calculator, I’ll do the math for you. That is $1.2 billion. If we act together and if we make the media something that is central to how we think about politics, think of what that would make possible, and how we would aid progressive forces in this country. Why don’t we do that? Because media issues are still seen as secondary.


–Sut Jhally
Director, Media Education Foundation