A National Strategy to Save the News

June 25, 2009
Television news—both national and local—is downsizing fast, and hardly a contributor to anyone's idea of high journalistic standards. Newspapers are bleeding money and going out of business. Magazines are closing due to lack of advertising. And very few news organizations are making a profit on the Internet.

Advertiser-supported journalism is dying. It's an undeniable fact. Nearly 16,000 journalists and news staffers lost their jobs last year, and more than 8,000 employees have been fired in the first four months of 2009, said the American Society of News Editors.

If the trend continues, large portions of the United States will be without coverage from a professional news media. That in itself would be a dangerous new development for an advanced democracy.

Don't expect answers from the companies that own the current media. They are playing dead—using staff layoffs and other cuts for a solution to their problems.

As television moves to increasingly trivial programming, large newspapers—long the real producers of news stories—seem to be clueless. Most still give away their Internet services, afraid to charge customers for what was once free.

Genuine change always comes from outside an entrenched industry. For those thinking about this issue, I recommend an excellent new 48-page report, "Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy," released by Free Press, a nonpartisan organization working to reform the media.

FINDING THE ANSWER

The report has some of the best new thinking I've heard yet about what's needed to reinvent the news media in the United States. It begins with the premise that professional journalism is a public service.

"When a major news organization closes, civic engagement suffers. America still needs the public good that is quality journalism: in-depth, investigative stories like Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the past or the more recent coverage of the AIG bonus fiasco and the neglect of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, to name just a few examples," the report said. "It is a truism that without a vibrant press, democracy falters. A society without journalism is a society that invites corruption."

The report blames the current journalism crisis on the major corporations that own much of media.

"It is important to emphasize that many of the media industry's wounds are self-inflicted, the result of bad business decisions and failed strategy," the report continued.

"Instead of investing the mega-profits they were making just a few years ago into future news operations, publicly traded media conglomerates like Tribune, Gannett and McClatchy ran amok in their buying sprees, sacrificing journalism for ever-higher quarterly returns to satisfy Wall Street's increasing profit expectations. Now these companies are so deeply in debt and overleveraged, they're on the verge of shutting down or being pawned off to private equity firms that will break them down and sell them for scrap."

According to the Free Press, most media properties are still profitable, just badly managed. Many of these bad deals got the assistance of government regulators who looked the other way while the media conglomerates ran up huge debt.

TOP PRIORITIES

New government policies are needed to sustain journalism while embracing digital technology and the power of the Internet, the report argues.

It identifies five promising models that should be top priorities for policymakers looking to save journalism:

  • New Ownership Structures. Encourage the establishment of nonprofit and low-profit news organizations through tax-exempt and low-profit limited liability company (L3C) models. This could reorient news once again from a profit-making enterprise to one that provides a public service. The report cites the model of the St. Petersburg Times, which is actually a for-profit newspaper owned and operated by the nonprofit Poynter Institute.
  • New Incentives. Create tax incentives and revise bankruptcy laws to encourage local, diverse, nonprofit, low-profit and employee ownership.
  • Journalism Jobs Program. Fund training and retraining for novice and veteran journalists in multimedia and investigative reporting.
  • R&D Fund for Journalism Innovation. Invest in innovative projects and experiment to identify and nurture new media models.
  • New Public Media. Transform public media into a world-class noncommercial news operation utilizing new technology and focused on community service.

The report calls for a national journalism strategy built around the principles of protecting the First Amendment, producing quality coverage, providing adversarial perspectives, promoting public accountability and prioritizing innovation.

The Free Press admits its vision is bold.

"We are venturing into uncharted territory," said Victor Pickard, a co-author of the report. "We need policies to help keep reporters on the beat, while also investing in long-term models for public service journalism."

Another of the report's co-authors, Josh Stearns, said there's "no magic bullet" to fixing journalism and there's no one-size-fits all solution.

"Answering the crisis in journalism will require a menu of responses," Stearns said. "But now is the time to engage the public in the debate over the policies that will reshape the future of news."

Reporters who have been laid off are already forming a series of new journalistic ventures on the Web. Many are innovative and promising. But help is needed. It's now time for the Obama administration and Congress to change the rules so that alternative journalism can thrive.

"Saving the News" is a must read for those who care about the future of media. Download the report at http://www.freepress.net/files/saving_the_news.pdf

Frank Beacham is an independent New York City-based writer. Visit his Web site at www.frankbeacham.com and his blog at www.beachamjournal.com/.

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