Columbia Study Reaffirms National Journalism Strategy

This is a post I wrote for SaveTheNews.org – I’ll have more personal thoughts and reflections coming on this topic soon.

A hopeful future for journalism is within reach, but it’ll take an ambitious societal effort to seize the moment. That is the conclusion of a new report released today by Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

The Reconstruction of American Journalism by Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, professor of journalism at Columbia, is the third major report to be released this year that advocates for a government role in securing the future of journalism.

Downie and Schudson’s report reads like a field study, full of useful and insightful comments from working journalists on the ground across the country. While so many reports have focused on the ongoing downsizing of newsrooms in print, radio and TV, The Reconstruction of American Journalism highlights innovative projects in news production that are cropping up throughout the media ecosystem.

The authors, however, are not naïve about the struggles facing American newsrooms. They write:

The challenge is to turn the current moment of transformation into a reconstruction of American journalism, enabling independent reporting to emerge enlivened and enlarged from the decline of long-dominant news media… What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the media in which it appears.

To meet that challenge, the report makes six recommendations:

    1) The IRS or Congress should change the tax code: Enact changes that would allow and encourage newsrooms to operate either as nonprofit or low-profit organizations. (read more about L3Cs here)

    2) Philanthropists and foundations should increase support for newsgathering: Spur charitable support for news organizations of all shapes and sizes and to fund core operations, as well as new and exciting individual projects. (check out our online chat about foundation funding and journalism here.)

    3) We should expand public media: We must increase funding and better direct NPR and PBS to focus on local news and accountability journalism. (learn more about Free Press’ New Public Media campaign here.)

    4) Journalism education is key: Universities should become institutional sources of news reporting. We need to broaden partnerships with universities and colleges and enlist journalism students to contribute to new and traditional models of journalism.

    5) The government should establish a fund for local news: Using revenue generated through fees from broadcast licenses and other spectrum uses, the FCC should create a fund to support local news. This would be modeled after the National Endowment for the Arts.

    6) We need to increase transparency and access to public information: All sectors of society must work to better collect, disseminate and organize public records and government data, which serves as the foundation for so many important journalism efforts.

Readers of this blog will recognize many of the ideas presented in the Downie and Schudson report. We have outlined similar ideas in our research, though with different emphases and funding streams. But Downie and Schudson’s analysis of opportunities through universities and their call for transparency are important additions to the conversation that we can begin to implement right away.

The key challenge raised by the report – as with other reports produced over the past year on the crisis in journalism – concerns the ability to move from idea to implementation, as well as the backlash some of these ideas generate. Even before the full report had been released, Downie and Schudson were being attacked on Twitter for suggesting that government has a role to play in supporting American journalism.

We need to move beyond these knee-jerk reactions to accept public policy as part of the future of journalism. Government is already deeply involved in shaping our media system, and if we ignore that reality, then we essentially remove ourselves from those debates, leaving media policy in the hands of big media lobbyists and corporate media execs.

These bipartisan, high-profile reports from experts and academics are not the only place where people are advocating for a policy role in promoting journalism. In Denver last month, more than 200 people turned out to debate the future of journalism and policy at a community forum. In talking with local journalists, representatives from national organizations and policy makers, it’s clear that momentum is building around a government response to the challenges facing journalism.

The report says it best: “American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment — as society has, at much greater expense, for public needs like education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation — through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.”

I’m in; are you?

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