Downie-Schudson: Who are they writing for?

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.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

7 Responses to "Downie-Schudson: Who are they writing for?"

  1. Taylor Walsh
    Taylor Walsh 7 years ago .Reply

    I suppose I am not surprised to see how completely the industry is apparently giving up on trying to re-fashion a financially sustainable intermediary role between local businesses and residents. Is it just me, or is there some eagerness for this transition to actually take place? To get out from under the weight of advertisers? And therefore from under the weight of client-sensitive management?

    But those firms and their people are also part of the community, and more to the point part of many communities when viewed through the digital prism. Too early to abandon looking for alternative arrangements. IMHO.

  2. Josh
    Josh 7 years ago .Reply

    Steve – in thinking about audience and reports like this one, and the Knight Commission report and even our own Free Press report, I wonder what recommendations we can make about how such reports are written, distributed, and discussed. At our Denver event we tried to take the themes and issues we discussed in our report from May and break them out and apply them to a local community and give local people a chance to weigh in and debate. For all of these reports do you think we need a “ground strategy” to more fully engage and hear from local people about how they see these issues and how it impacts their community? What format do you think would be useful – was the Denver event close? (here is a link to our report from May: http://www.freepress.net/node/57076)

  3. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Josh: My experience of late has been that there’s not much of a groundswell from the public about the “news crisis.” Media is held in low esteem currently (thanks, especially, cable TV news!), so investigative reporting units being scrapped and reporters losing jobs isn’t exactly resonating. It’s mostly the media geeks, journalism academics, and a few informed media outsiders who care about the issue.

    I wonder if more of a public outreach is required. If we who are working on these issues can get others outraged about the situation, in larger numbers, perhaps that will help free up more foundation money, and get more public officials thinking about how they can help without compromising journalists’ objectivity.

    In some projects I’m working on for the University of Colorado, I’ve spent some time with recently laid off investigative reporters as they try to regroup and continue their craft outside of a big corporation. Each of them has a list of significant stories — government or business or land use corruption, malfeasance, misuse of taxpayer money, etc. — that they know about but are not covering.

    So here’s an idea, perhaps for SaveTheNews: Crowdsource from laid-off reporters a list of uncovered, public-interest stories that the public does not know about because there are no journalists available to cover them due to lack of funding for an investigation. Publicize that big-time.

    Investigative reporting often sparks public outrage and wrongs get righted. Might the public also be outraged by wrongdoing that continues because there are not enough watchdogs to do the work it takes to stop it?

    I forgot who said it, but a quote a recall recently predicted a period of low-level corruption growing in many cities where traditional media have declined significantly.

    Could publicizing this to a broader audience be a more effective strategy than issuing reports, like the Columbia one released yesterday, that get read mostly by media people? If commercial models cannot be found to support large-scale accountability journalism in the wake of old media failures, surely we need to get more people interested in supporting the new wave of press watchdogs.

  4. […] Downie-Schudson journalism report: Who are they writing for? […]

  5. […] they didn’t know. Of course, my intended audience was the executives of media companies. As Steve Outing has speculated, the primary audience for Downie and Schudson might well be foundations and philanthropists who […]

  6. […] Steve Outing, speculated that the primary audience for Downie and Schudson might well be foundations and philanthropists. […]

  7. […] report, which I’m about halfway done read­ing. Journalism veteran-turned-consultant Steve Outing noted on his blog that the report doesn’t offer a lot of new infor­ma­tion for the peo­ple who are […]

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