Leonard Downie Jr – former of Washington Post executive editor turned Arizona State University journalism professor – last night delivered the James Cameron memorial lecture at City University, London.
In his address Downie looked at ‘The New News’ likely future developments of the journalism industry.
Here is his presentation in full:
Thank you for inviting me to give this lecture in honour of James Cameron.
Two years ago, Max Hastings said he ‘must be among the last people alive who will deliver this lecture who knew (James Cameron) as a colleague.”
Hastings recalled that he was a young reporter on the Evening Standard 40 years ago, when Cameron was a top correspondent and covered stories like the Six-Day War in 1967 and the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
At that time, I was still a local investigative reporter for The Washington Post. And I never had the opportunity to meet James Cameron when I was based here as the London correspondent for The Post, from 1979 through 1982.
I do not recall meeting Max Hastings then either. But I followed closely his vivid and authoritative coverage of the Falklands War. Hastings was what we would now call an ’embed’ with the British expeditionary forces as they sailed to the Falklands and invaded the islands. Only British print reporters were allowed to go with them.
We in the foreign press were prevented by geography – and by the British and Argentine governments – from covering the war in person. So I had the surreal experience of doing it from here in London.
I was free, however, of the British government’s war propaganda machine, in which Whitehall systematically fed misinformation to British reporters in closed, off-the-record briefings. Instead, I was able to deal directly with my own trustworthy sources – including a member of Prime Minister Thatcher’s war cabinet – to get closer to the truth, including how Mrs. Thatcher ordered the sinking of the destroyer Belgrano, killing thousands of Argentine sailors. The British government still has not told the whole truth about her decision.
That brings me to the first Cameron Memorial Lecture in 1987, delivered by my predecessor as executive editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee. Ben knew Jimmy Cameron, as he called him, as a contemporary.
As was his habit, Ben used the occasion to campaign against mendacity in government – and to urge the press to be bolder in calling a government lie a lie – whether it was told by a president or a prime minister.
‘I would like to talk about lying,’Ben began that first Cameron Lecture. ‘The wilful deception of the public for political end, especially under the guise of national security, and what an awful price we pay for such lies.”
It would be an understatement to say that I share Ben Bradlee’s zeal for holding governments – and all other institutions with power and influence in our society – accountable for their actions.
This has, in many ways, defined my career – from my own investigative reporting about the American criminal justice system, local government corruption, banking and real estate development during the 1960s, to my editing of many of the Post’s Watergate stories in the 1970s, to my direction of accountability journalism of all kinds during a quarter century as managing editor and then executive editor of The Washington Post, from 1984 to 2008, including my decision to publish revelations about the CIA’s secret overseas prisons for the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Accountability journalism is the most important mission of the American news media. It is a unique freedom and responsibility of a free press in our constitutional system.
The future of accountability journalism is now at stake – along with much else – as a tsunami of economic, technological and social change washes over the news media.
It’s hardly the first time that journalism has changed dramatically. James Cameron himself, for example, was an agent of such change. He was one of the first of what we now call ‘multi-media’journalists – successfully working in newspapers, radio and television.
Now, of course, with the digital revolution, the onrushing changes in journalism and the news media are much more rapid, profound and unpredictable.
Obviously, there is still news – and in more abundance than ever. Much more news is now available to everyone with access to the Internet.
But, to quote an academic colleague of mine, the question is:
Will the new news be good?
I do not intend to wax nostalgic about or lament the passing of the good old days of journalism. After all, not everything about those days was so good. And the best journalism being produced now – thanks to the same forces of change that have so disrupted the old order – is arguably better than ever.
So, instead, I want to explore with you the reconstruction of American journalism – both its promise and its perils. You will recognize similar currents of change in British and European news media – although those currents may not yet be as fast-moving or as far-reaching.
American journalism is at a transformational moment – in which a long era of dominant newspapers and influential network television news programs is rapidly giving way to a new journalistic era in which both the gathering and distribution of news is more widely dispersed.
The economic foundation of American journalism, long supported by advertising, has been steadily eroding. The audiences for print and television news platforms have been aging and fragmenting. And their newsrooms and news reporting staffs have been shrinking dramatically.
A number of large American daily newspaper companies are now in bankruptcy – or have been sold out of bankruptcy to creditors whose long-term intentions are unknown. Some newspapers have closed down. Some are still losing money. More than 100 other former dailies now print and deliver newspapers only on selected days each week. Still others now publish only on-line.
The printed editions of most surviving American newspapers have shrunk in size substantially and contain far less news. Many of their reporting staffs have been cut by half or more. Only a handful still have foreign correspondents. Many no longer have reporters covering the federal government in Washington or even the governments in their state capitals.
At the same time, the audiences and news staffs of both the national television networks and local television stations also are shrinking steadily.
All of this does not mean that American newspapers and television news will vanish in the foreseeable future. There are still well over 1,000 daily metropolitan newspapers in the United States – and hundreds more television stations and cable channels – still offering news, including on their websites
But they are playing steadily diminishing roles in an emerging and still evolving world of digital journalism – in which news gathering is being continuously re-invented, the character of news redefined, and news reporting distributed across a much greater number and variety of sources.
Of course, the Internet has not only helped undermine the economic and audience models of old news media.
As you can see every day, the Internet also has made it possible to gather and distribute news in dynamic new ways – not only by surviving newspapers and television news operations – but, just as importantly, by numerous new on-line news organizations, non-profit reporting projects, public radio stations, university-based state and local news services, government agencies, NGOs and advocacy groups, community and neighbourhood news sites, and, of course, countless bloggers.
Financial support for news gathering in America is now coming, not only from advertisers and subscribers, but also from philanthropists and foundations, university and government budgets, and donations from individual readers and viewers.
News reporting has become more participatory and collaborative. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only journalists in newsrooms, but legions of freelancers working from homes and coffee shops, university students and faculty members reporting from the communities and states outside their campuses, and citizens contributing information and images from laptops and mobile phones everywhere.
Journalists can gather news and information much more widely and deeply on the Internet. They can update and supplement their reporting continuously on blogs and social media – and they can have their reporting enriched and fact-checked by their audiences.
Journalists and news organizations can link their journalism to news reporting and information sources elsewhere on the web. And they can present it all in engaging multi-media formats targeted at an infinite variety of news consumers and tastes.
In fact, with more ways to get the news than ever before, Americans are now spending more time with the news each day than they did a decade ago, according to a new authoritative survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The survey showed that Americans are making up for steady, modest declines in their use of traditional print and broadcast sources of news by spending significantly more time seeking out news on various digital platforms and mobile devices. A majority of those Americans said that they now get their news mostly ‘from time to time’at their choosing, rather than at ‘regular times’determined by the delivery of newspapers or the schedule of broadcast news programs.
Early this year, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, in his thoughtful Hugh Cudlipp Lecture, explained this new news eco-system, in Britain and elsewhere, this way:
‘Journalists have never before been able to tell stories so effectively, bouncing off each other, linking to each other, linking out, citing sources, allowing response – harnessing the best qualities of text, print, data, sound and visual media. If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance,’Rusbridger said, ‘it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them.”
Many older news media organizations were initially slow to embrace all those capabilities. They were, at first, hostile to what appeared only to be threatening digital competition, rather than enticing digital opportunities, for their journalism. Now, they are scrambling to survive in the digital world, even as they do face new competition from both for-profit and non-profit digital news start-ups.
But they also are more open to cooperation. There is a new willingness by both for-profit and non-profit news organizations to share reporting with each other. As I will discuss later, that cooperation enables them to stretch limited resources, to reach larger audiences and to produce better journalism.
The most aggressive of the older American news organizations are changing fast. Like the Guardian and the Financial Times here in Britain, The Washington Post is no longer just a newspaper. It is now a multi-platform news and information provider operating out of a completely reconstructed newsroom in downtown Washington, D.C. – with a digital universal news desk for all of its print and digital outlets, several television and radio studios, and state-of-art multi-media production facilities.
Washington Post reporters all produce both digital and print journalism. They blog regularly on their subject beats – from politics, economics and national security to education, sports and religion. They produce audio and video podcasts. They converse with their audiences through on-line chats and social networks. They discuss their journalism on television and radio. And their work is digitally tagged and manipulated to maximize its exposure via search engines, on-line aggregators and social networks.
Yes, that’s a lot of work, especially in newsrooms, including ours, where there are fewer journalists than there were just a few years ago.
But it also immerses these journalists more deeply in their subjects, makes their journalism more authoritative and transparent, and connects them more closely with their audiences.
The Washington Post, like many other older news organizations on the web, is supplementing its own journalism with free-lance blogs on local and national news subjects, with journalism produced by non-profit news and investigative reporting start-ups, with links to competitors’ news stories and commentary, and with a variety of contributions from members of its audience. The Post is collaborating with the nearby Baltimore Sun on coverage of local sports and with Bloomberg on coverage of national business news.
A growing number of American newspapers are compensating for their reduced reporting resources by collaborating with other newspapers. Two former rivals in Florida, the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, now jointly cover the state capital in Tallahassee, while the Herald and two newspapers near Miami share their local news reporting. A number of other newspapers are similarly collaborating in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas and the state of Washington.
In the most extensive collaboration to date, the eight largest newspapers in Ohio share all of their state, business, sports, arts and entertainment news, along with various kinds of features, photographs and graphics.
The Gannett Company, which owns dozens of newspapers in cities throughout the United States, is grouping them into regional clusters that will centralize some journalistic functions, beginning with page design.
A growing number of American television stations also are sharing local news reporting. At more than 200 stations around the country – from Los Angeles and Kansas City to Philadelphia and Miami – their local newscasts are produced by other stations in the same cities.
In some cities, such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Salt Lake City, Utah, where both a newspaper and a television station are owned by the same company, their print, television and digital newsrooms are being merged into a single newsroom for all their media outlets.
Some local American public radio stations – along with a smaller number of public television stations – are belatedly starting or increasing local news reporting to make up for the shrinking news coverage by newspapers and commercial broadcasting stations in the cities and states where they are located.
Obviously, there is no television license fee to support a national public broadcasting network in the United States, as there is here.
The current system of American public radio and television was created by Congress in 1967. Through the quasi-public Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal government funnels about $400 million a year to national program producers and to hundreds of independent public radio and television stations throughout the country.
That is roughly $1.35 of government support per capita for public broadcasting in the United States, compared to about $80 per capita here in Britain, $100 in Denmark and Finland, nearly $60 in Japan, and about $25 per capita in Canada, Australia and Germany.
Most public radio and television stations in the United States are individually licensed to universities, non-profit community groups, and state and local governments. They must supplement their relatively small grants from the federal government with donations from their audiences, philanthropic foundations and corporate contributors.
Most of the stations spend most of that money on overhead costs, fund-raising expenses and entertainment programming – rather than for news reporting. A significant exception is the national and international news broadcasts the stations purchase from National Public Radio – which is itself a non-profit news organization financed by its member stations, philanthropy, corporate donations and grants from foundations and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and some of the stronger and more progressive local public radio stations have recently started working together to improve the stations’ local news reporting. They are gradually expanding their relatively small news staffs, sharing news reporting among stations and with National Public Radio, and making their web sites more dynamic and informative. National Public Radio recently created its first investigative reporting unit.
However, with some notable exceptions, most American public radio and television stations have a very long way to go before they will be covering local news in a meaningful way. They need to move faster, and they need more support from the federal government to do so.
Meanwhile, new news organizations of all kinds are starting up every day in the United States – without the costs of printing presses, or fleets of delivery trucks, or expensive broadcasting facilities. Those start-ups – which are organized as tax-exempt non-profit organizations – therefore don’t need to make a profit and can accept tax-deductible funding from charitable foundations and individual donors.
An important national non-profit news organization named ProPublica, based in New York and dedicated to accountability journalism, was started three years ago by former Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger with a $30 million gift from husband-and-wife philanthropists in California. It now employs three dozen investigative journalists in a shiny high-tech newsroom just off Wall Street.
ProPublica has produced award-winning investigative reporting about government, business, energy and health care, among other subjects. Its journalism has been published and broadcast by major newspapers like The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, all of the major national television networks, and numerous websites, including its own.
ProPublica has successfully enlisted members of its online audience to perform so-called ‘crowd-sourcing’research for some of its stories, such as monitoring the progress of public works projects funded across the country by the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program. ProPublica has been completely transparent about its reporting methodology and databases, so other news organizations or independent journalists can follow up with additional reporting of their own.
Some of the new news organizations are highly specialized.
The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, which is supported by philanthropic foundations and private donations, mines government and other databases to produce investigative reports about government and politics, from campaign finance to the performance of government agencies. The centre publishes its reports on its own website and shares them with newspaper and broadcast news partners, so they reach much wider audiences.
The Washington-based Kaiser Health News, financed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a respected non-partisan health care research organization, reports on health care policy for its own website – and for several local and national newspapers and for National Public Radio.
The Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California, last year launched California Watch, a fast-growing, foundation-funded non-profit news organization that produces high-impact accountability journalism about California issues and the state government. California Watch news stories have been published and broadcast by dozens of newspapers and radio and television stations throughout California – many of which no longer have the resources to do much of it on their own.
A number of similar, small, new non-profit, Internet-based news organizations have been started in states and cities across the United States, many of them during the past year.
So far, the news staffs of these non-profit start-ups are much smaller than even the shrunken staffs of most American newspapers. But they are able to focus their limited reporting resources on high-priority accountability journalism about state and local government, politics, economics and social issues. Some of them already have had a much greater impact with their journalism on their communities than their relative size would suggest.
Among the most promising of these non-profit news sites are the Voice of San Diego in southern California, the Bay Citizen in San Francisco, the Texas Tribune in the state capital of Austin, MinnPost in Minneapolis, the St. Louis Beacon, the Chicago News Cooperative, the New Haven Independent in Connecticut, and several news sites in the New York City area.
Most of these non-profit start-ups were funded initially by foundations and philanthropists. To survive, they will need sustaining financial support from their audiences, in the same way that local public radio and television stations have been raising money in the United States for decades.
Some of the new non-profits also are seeking business partners among surviving older news organizations.
The New York Times, for example, which circulates throughout the country, is paying the Bay Citizen in San Francisco and the Chicago News Cooperative for local news that it publishes in regional editions of the New York Times for those cities. It is also collaborating with neighbourhood news website start-ups in the New York City area.
The large number of neighbourhood news websites started by entrepreneurial independent journalists in Seattle, Washington, are now collaborating on the web with the Seattle Times newspaper under a grant from the Knight Foundation intended to foster such cooperation.
At the same time, a growing number of American universities have started their own non-profit news sites – staffed by student journalists overseen by professional journalists who have joined the university’s faculties. These sites cover news and do investigative reporting in the states, cities and neighbourhoods where the universities are located. Their journalism is published and broadcast on university-operated websites and public radio and television stations – as well as commercial newspapers and stations that use the student-produced journalism to supplement their own reduced reporting and resources.
For example, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix – where I am now on the faculty – operates the Cronkite News Service, which reports news and does investigative reporting about Arizona and its state government for about 30 newspapers, television stations and websites around the state. Cronkite journalism students also produce a local nightly newscast on the Phoenix public television station, as well as a multi-media Cronkite News website.
Students at the graduate schools of journalism at Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley produce websites that cover local news in parts of New York City and the San Francisco Bay area.
The Capital News Service of the University of Maryland, just outside Washington, D. C., operates news bureaus in the state capital and in Washington that serve newspapers in Maryland. Students from Northwestern University, near Chicago, operate a similar news bureau in Washington for media clients throughout the country.
This summer, selected students from a dozen journalism schools around the United States, working with the Center for Public Integrity, produced an important series of investigative news stories about the shortcomings of federal regulation of transportation safety in America. Their project, called News21, was funded by the Knight and Carnegie foundations and was supervised and edited by journalists, including myself, on the faculty of the Cronkite School at Arizona State. The students’ stories are appearing this week in print in The Washington Post and on the websites of The Washington Post, MSNBC.com and the Center for Public Integrity.
A few university journalism schools in the United States have become bases for investigative reporting projects that have regularly contributed significant accountability journalism to local newspapers and broadcast stations. Investigative journalists no longer employed by newspapers and television have joined those university faculties to supervise investigative reporting by their students, often in collaboration with professional news organizations.
In Boston alone, Northeastern University journalism students have produced a dozen front-page investigative reporting projects for the Boston Globe, and Boston University has launched the New England Center for Investigative Reporting to work with the Globe and local public television and radio stations.
Most of the non-profit news start-ups are still financially fragile. Raising money from foundations and other donors and sponsors – and seeking support from news media partners – consume a disproportionate amount of their time and energy. Some start-ups already have failed. Others are struggling to stay afloat. Even some of the most successful so far still must build long-term economic models to sustain themselves in the future.
Nearly 40 American non-profit news organizations recently formed a national Investigative News Network to collaborate on fund-raising, legal and logistical support, web site development and reporting projects.
A small number of large American philanthropic foundations, which have expressed strong concerns about the future of journalism, have been funding ways to increase the number of non-profit news start-ups, to help them become digitally innovative and to create longer-term sustainability.
Journalists who have left large American news organizations also are starting new Internet-based news organizations that they hope can make a profit. They range from GlobalPost, which covers international news, to a rapidly growing number of so-called ‘hyper-local’websites covering neighbourhood news in cities across the United States.
GlobalPost has contracted with free-lance journalists around the world to report foreign news stories for readers of its website and for American newspapers and broadcast outlets, including CBS News. Its revenue comes from sales of its reporting, advertising on its website and subscriptions sold to readers who want direct access to GlobalPost correspondents and additional reporting.
The future of GlobalPost will be determined by the level of Americans’ interest in its international news coverage and by the quality of the work of its free-lance correspondents, for whom GlobalPost is only a part-time job.
Hyper-local neighbourhood news sites have been started by small-scale journalistic entrepreneurs in American cities like Seattle and by large companies like AOL, which is currently launching hundreds of hyper-local neighbourhood news sites in cities across the country under the brand name Patch. They keep costs down by employing a single professional journalist for each neighbourhood site and seeking unpaid or low-cost contributions from bloggers and neighbourhood residents.
It remains to be seen whether these hyper-local news sites can become self-sustaining in audience and revenue, or whether they can produce journalism any more meaningful than bare-bones breaking news, lists of neighbourhood activities and links to local coverage by other news sites. It also remains to be seen whether journalists and others contributing to these hyper-local news site will find it financially or professionally worthwhile for them over the long run.
This follows, in a way, the model of national Internet news aggregators like HuffingtonPost. They confine their costs to minimal staffing necessary to operate the websites and edit content.
The aggregators fill their websites with news, opinion, features, photographs and video that they continuously collect – some would say steal – from other national and local news sites, along with mostly unpaid postings by bloggers who settle for exposure in lieu of money.
Though they purport to be a new form of journalism, these aggregators are primarily parasites living off journalism produced by others. They attract audiences by aggregating journalism about special interests and opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum, along with titillating gossip and sex. Revealing photos of and stories about entertainment celebrities account for much of the highly touted web traffic to the HuffingtonPost site, for example.
It is not yet clear whether many – or any – of the aggregators will become profitable – or, more importantly, whether any of them will become sources of original, credible journalism.
Even more problematic are recently started, so-called ‘content farms,’in which free-lancers are paid small fees to produce informational articles on a wide range of subjects for search engine and other mass audience websites, on which the content is managed by computer logarithms rather than human editors. These shallow articles are not really news reporting at all.
In stark contrast, a growing number of for-profit specialized news websites are hiring experienced expert journalists to report on narrowly focused subjects, such as business, individual industries, government regulation and politics – for insider audiences who will pay a premium for such information – or who may attract advertisers seeking such targeted audiences.
For example, the number of journalists covering various aspects of government policy in Washington has grown steadily in recent years, even though the number of Washington correspondents for general interest newspapers and television networks has decreased dramatically. The difference has been the growth of special interest news organizations covering the capital.
Perhaps the largest and most profitable is Bloomberg, a long-established provider of specialized financial information to businesses. Bloomberg has greatly enlarged its reporting staffs in Washington and New York to provide much more business and government news reporting to clients of its news service, website and closed system of proprietary information terminals.
A for-profit start-up called Politico has attracted a large audience of American political junkies with insider scoops, gossip and commentary on national politics and government. Its political journalists share a newsroom with a local television company that owns Politico, and its revenue comes mostly from corporations and advocacy groups seeking to influence legislation and policy making. They have been buying advertising on both Politico’s website and its free-circulation print version distribution free to members of Congress and their staffs.
American government agencies, private businesses, NGOs and other advocacy groups also are increasingly publishing special interest news and information and databases on their own websites, all of which available free.
The environment movement, for example, has spawned a number of environmental news websites, with news coverage and commentary supportive of their agenda.
Human Rights Watch, with its own large staff of researchers and writers, regularly publishes detailed reports on the status of human rights in countries around the world. And its work frequently sets the agenda for reporting on the subject by American and other news media.
At the other end of the digital spectrum from all that organized journalism is the chaotic universe of blogs and social networks.
Most of what they originate is trivia: personal activities, observations, opinions and images – and, of course, sometimes malicious rumours that too often are believed by too many people. As disturbing number of Americans still believe that President Obama is a Muslim who was born outside the United States, in part because so many bloggers and tweeters say so.
But blogs and social networks also transmit real news: by sharing or linking to news produced by the organized media or by offering meaningful and accurate original information.
In fact, the blogosphere and American news media have become increasingly symbiotic. They feed off each other’s information and commentary, and they even fact-check each other. They share audiences, and they mimic each other through evolving forms of digital journalism.
A number of independent bloggers and social media commentators have become widely read and influential – by specializing in subjects they know well and have informed opinions about, including politics, economics and business, legal affairs, the news media, education, health and family issues, sports and entertainment and the arts.
A few American bloggers have grown into full-fledged digital news organizations. Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, for example, has a small staff of paid reporters and editors in a spare newsroom in New York. His investigative reporting and sharp-edged left-of-centre commentary, assisted by contributions from his audience, has won journalism awards and influenced reporting by other news media.
Many other American bloggers who report and comment on news are locally based, writing about neighbourhoods and cities where they live. Few of them earn much or any money from their blogging; it’s more of a labour of love. They now face the choice of competing with or contributing to for-profit hyper-local news sites being started in their communities by outsiders.
While the Internet has made it possible for almost anyone with a digital device to become a journalist if they want to be, it has also made it more difficult for professional journalists to make a living by methodically reporting the news – just as the Internet has made it more difficult for news media companies to stay in business.
Some news organizations have been able to charge for subscriptions to their websites.
They include American newspapers in smaller cities and towns that still have a virtual monopoly on local news coverage and advertising, as well as news organizations providing valuable special interest information to targeted audiences, such as the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Some general interest newspapers are now experimenting with similar subscription pay walls, including the Times here and, starting next year, the New York Times. They are gambling that the resulting large decreases in website traffic will be offset by revenue from loyal web subscribers.
Meanwhile, newspapers like the Guardian and The Washington Post are keeping their websites free for now, while seeking other new sources of revenue.
In a report published a year ago by Columbia University, Columbia professor Michael Schudson and I concluded that most news reporting can no longer be supported by a single economic model, such as advertising or subscriptions. With rare exceptions like the BBC here in Britain, the financial support for news reporting must become more diversified.
In the United States, we argued in our report, American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting in this new environment, as it has traditionally for education, health care, scientific advancement and culture – through varying combinations of private enterprise, philanthropy, direct contributions, and government policies and subsidies.
Specifically, Professor Schudson and I recommended:
American tax policy should be clarified to allow more news organizations, including existing newspapers, to be organized as tax-exempt non-profits.
American philanthropists and foundations should substantially increase their support for non-profit journalism.
American public radio and television stations – and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – should substantially be re-oriented to support much more local news reporting.
More American universities should produce journalism rather than just teach it, assisted by philanthropic and government support.
And, a national Fund for Local News should be created to enable the federal government to indirectly subsidize innovative local news reporting.
Our recommendations are intended to supplement, rather than replace, commercial models for journalism that we expect to continue to evolve in the digital marketplace, perhaps in ways that no one could now anticipate.
But, will the new news be good?
That remains the question, for which I do not see easy or doctrinaire answers.
Yes, in the digital world, everyone can contribute to reporting the news, rather than relying on sometimes arrogant and self-serving journalism monopolies with sometimes dubious agendas. If all traditional news organizations were to vanish, information, investigation, analysis and community knowledge would not necessarily disappear with them.
But much of the most-needed journalism – especially accountability journalism – is still best produced collaboratively by stable news organizations that can facilitate professional reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics and legal backing, and present their work to a large public.
Credible, verifiable journalism about what is important in life is needed more than ever amidst the babble of the blogosphere and social networks, the polarizing opinion and propaganda, the tabloid invasions of privacy and the cynical audience appeal of news presented as entertainment and entertainment presented as news.
The challenge I see – in the United States and elsewhere, over time – is to turn this tumultuous moment of transformation into a beneficial reconstruction of journalism, enabling credible, verifiable, independent news reporting to emerge, enlivened and enlarged, from the current decline of long-dominant news media.
As Andrew Marr observed recently, in the BBC’s on-line news magazine, with all the digital choices for news now available to everyone, ‘the new media age could bring with it a better, more rigorous kind of journalism’among those choices.
However, as anyone can see in the current economic turmoil and tabloid scandals in the British news media – and controversy over the future of the BBC – that outcome is far from a given.
So I would also suggest that universities, like this one, should take a much more active role in helping to shape the future of news.
That means not just teaching, talking and doing research about journalism. It means actively producing journalism and assisting others in doing it. And it means acting as a watchdog to hold the news media accountable for the ways in which they transform themselves in this turbulent time.
None of us wants to wake up one morning in the near future to discover that the new news is mostly bad.