By Steve Outing
Reading the new report by Len Downie Jr. and Professor Michael Schudson, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” today, I kept wondering: Who is this report aimed at?
Commissioned by the Journalism School at Columbia University, the 96-page report offers nothing much new to media geeks. If you follow the news industry and its travails closely, the treatise is just a handy recap of how we got into this mess (newspapers crumbling, reporters laid off, et al) and of all the various small news entities springing up to take over some of the tasks that old news media is shedding (like “accountability journalism,” which saving is a central theme of the report). And then some recommendations; again, nothing particularly original.
But I don’t mean to be negative, because I think the report is great for the right audience: philanthropists and foundations.
As the authors make clear, much of the new news ecosystem — the part doing the serious watchdog and investigative journalism that advertisers don’t especially want to pay for — will be non-profit, or low-profit. For this segment of the news sector to grow (and it must), philanthropic money will be critical. Such news organizations can’t rely on sugar daddies forever, but they’ll need it initially while they work toward and invent a model for long-term sustainability.
(I am not dismissing for-profit enterprises springing up out of the ashes of old media, and neither do Downie and Schudson — though they don’t give a whole lot of time in their report to for-profit solutions to the news crisis.)
I do hope that “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” is widely distributed and read by community foundations, national foundations that have not yet made grants within the news and information sectors, and various other philanthropists. Because this report will serve to educate them on a problem that they should know about, and to persuade them to join the party to find solutions.
Of course journalism has long had its support from key foundations, with the Knight Foundation at the top of the heap. But even that big pile of cash in Miami won’t support everything that needs to be done to make up for the degradation of newspapers and resulting alarming decline in accountability journalism. New players must come into the picture, including more community foundations and local philanthropists. The authors make the case that local accountability journalism is most at risk (and much of it already lost in some communities).
Knight already has been courting community foundations, with matching grants for those that take on local initiatives or programs to keep their communities informed. It’s also reached out to other national foundations, urging them to get involved. After all, if the good work by organizations that these foundations support in other need areas can’t get their messages out because of a dysfunctional and chaotic media ecosystem, then it’s in community foundations’ interest to start spending some money on news and information experiments and solutions.
Entrepreneurs looking to make a profit well may be able to create new news entities that don’t rely on philanthropy to get started and succeed long term. But I’m of the opinion that when it comes to serious journalism (accountability, investigative, watchdog, public-interest, whatever you want to call it), we’re headed into a period where that kind of journalism increasingly will be non-profit.
I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know from this report, but there’s a lot in there that caring people with money to give away to support their communities don’t yet understand. Let’s hope “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” gets on their reading lists, post-haste.