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A tale of two reports: Part II--Just what kind of journalism are we trying to construct here?

Last week, I began reading and analyzing two reports on the future of journalism:

 

This week, I'm taking a closer look at the first of these reports, and related reactions. More on The Big Thaw to come.

Much of the debate that The Reconstruction of American Journalism has kicked up since its release centers on the question of whether journalism should be subsidized by taxpayers--or even conducted by nonprofit institutions at all. Schudson and Downie propose that a mixture of government and foundation funding, along with greater involvement by universities in journalism experiments and more accessible government data could help to revitalize now-moribund local reporting. Critics warn that more involvement of the government in journalism might create a slippery slope down into propaganda, or at the very least, support the creation of yet more content that no one will want to consume.

"Collective responsibility. Socialized journalism," writes Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine. "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 suggests that the authors are mistaking inefficiencies in current business models for news for a crisis in journalism itself. "Journalists deserve subsidies too," counter Robert McChesney and John Nichols in The Washington Post. "Saving newspapers may be impossible. But we can save journalism. Step one is to begin debating ways for enlightened public subsidies to provide a competitive and independent digital news media."

A real question that I see arising in these debates is what various camps mean when they use the term "journalism." Adding the qualifier "independent" adds yet another layer of obscurity. What, exactly, is it that we're hoping to save or reconstruct?

Schudson and Downie provide several interesting classifications in their survey of endangered journalism species:

  • “accountability reporting," they explain, "often comes out of beat coverage and targets those who have power and influence in our lives—not only governmental bodies, but also businesses and educational and cultural institutions
  • "explanatory reporting" supports democratic engagement "by explaining complicated events, issues, and processes in clear language"
  • “community knowledge reporting” or “social empathy reporting,” can, as in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina victims, make "more vivid and accessible issues of race, social and economic conditions, and the role of government in people’s lives. At its best, this kind of reporting shocks readers, as well as enhances curiosity, empathy, and understanding about life in our communities."

It is these sorts of reporting, they suggest, that commercial outlets are less and less able or inclined to support. (Here we see the "market failure" that justifies public subsidy.) In contrast, they argue, "advocacy journalism is not endangered—it is growing. The expression of publicly disseminated opinion is perhaps Americans’ most exercised First Amendment right, as anyone can see and hear every day on the Internet, cable television, talk radio, and every sort of digital, broadcast, and print media. What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs."

So far so good--at least on the supply side. The sorts of journalism they're hoping to conserve are central to public media 2.0: fodder for publics to address, debate and act upon shared issues. But what's missing here are recommendations dealing with how such content will attract users' attention, and motivate them to act upon it.

Many accounts of new user and reporter behaviors appear here and there throughout the report. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian newspaper and website describes an emerging ethos of collaborative journalism: "'I have seen the future, and it is mutual," he says. The authors describe how Minnesota Public Radio reached out to Iraq war veterans, soldiers and military contractors to shape a story about the role that contracting played in the war zone, "a version of what is being called 'pro-am journalism'—not just professionals or just 'citizen journalists' but professionals and amateurs working together over the Internet."

Much smaller local and regional news Web sites founded by professional journalists—ranging from the for-profit New West network of Web sites in Montana and neighboring states to the nonprofit New Haven Independent in Connecticut—regularly supplement reporting by their relatively tiny staffs with contributions from freelancers, bloggers, and readers. The fast-increasing number of bloglike “hyperlocal” neighborhood news sites across the country depend even more heavily for their news reporting on freelancers and citizen contributors edited by professional journalists.

The examples go on: ProPublica's "distributed reporting" model crowdsources tasks to users; the Center for Independent Media's "actionable impact reporting," applies a blogging sensibility to reporting on key issues; the anonymous Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog posts photos and reports about derelict buildings alongside information about their owners, offering users details about related government officials to petition. These examples and more illustrate a much more complex emerging news ecology, which elides older distinctions between professional, "independent" and citizen reporters and rebuffs generalizations about the difference between commercial and nonprofit outlets.

As The Reconstruction of American Journalism suggests, public broadcasting outlets may well be a site for revitalizing local journalism. (Georgetown's Mark McCarthy examines the economics and politics of such a proposition in a recent article.) But the problems with this recommendation aren't just a lack of funding, or even the difficulty of making a shift in policy. Nor are they related to reliability. The assertion that taxpayer-funded media is tantamount to government-controlled news is a straw-man argument; public broadcasting provides some of the nation's most trusted journalism. In contrast, public trust in legacy commercial outlets is notably low, and the current battle between the White House and Fox News only highlights the blaring partisanship that many broadcast commentators on both the right and the left have adopted. A nationwide commitment to transparent, rigorous "accountability journalism" would be a welcome relief.

But for public broadcasting stations to reconstruct themselves as local news outlets in the current ecosystem will require a genuine shift of focus--from being suppliers of content to working more closely with their local publics, treating them as collaborators rather than just viewers and donors. Stations could hasten this transformation by working with those individuals and organizations in their communities that are more comfortable in the participatory media environment: bloggers and developers, yes (like those who attended the recent PubCamp), but also public access stations, community technology centers, libraries. Such organizations have learned to not just serve the public, but to work directly with them to create connections and harvest expertise. What's more, stations need to hire or develop staff within their own organizations to create not only content, but contexts for engagement, deliberation, and civic action, with special attention paid to drawing in underserved users. These are specialized skills--and such staffers deserve to be subsidized just as much as the journalists do.

What's more even with new money, a new charge from CPB, new local partners, and new staffers, public broadcasting stations would be hard pressed to carry the load of reporting for an entire community. Schudson and Downie are well aware of these challenges. "Rather than depending primarily on newspapers and their now waning concentration of reporting resources, each sizable American community should have a number of diverse sources of news reporting," they write. "They should include a variety and mix of commercial and nonprofit news organizations that can both compete and collaborate with each other. They should be adapting traditional journalistic forms to the multimedia, interactive, real-time capabilities of digital communication, sharing the reporting and distribution of news with citizens, bloggers, and aggregators." By their own account, then, more nonprofit news is only only part of the solution. Why, then, are their recommendations so narrow?

The project of reconstructing journalism requires a much broader discussion--one that involves not just mechanisms for funding reporting and outlets, but questions of broadband penetration and adoption, carrots and sticks for commercial news providers, the role of open source practices in spurring innovation in journalism, the urgent need to instill new media literacies in both children and adults, and shifting news consumption habits across generations and other social groups.

Such conversations have been happening in the aggregate, across a range of sites, reports and conferences over the past few years. As a result, more integrated approaches to these linked issues are finally beginning to emerge. The October 28 announcement that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has appointed reporter and online entrepreneur Steven Waldman as a senior advisor is just one indicator of more shifts and solutions to come. Waldman will lead a fact-finding process to "ensure that our policies promote a vibrant media landscape that furthers long-standing goals of serving the information needs of communities." Watch this space for further developments