Journalism Debates Here and Abroad

I recently had the good fortune to talk at length with Sven Egil Omdal, a journalist from Norway who is in the US on a sabbatical and is studying journalism’s digital transition. We talked about newspaper economics, new models and experiments, the future of public media and the role of public policy. I was intrigued by the similarities and the differences in how this debate is unfolding in Scandinavia as compared to the US.

In an article he wrote earlier this year, Omdal describes a series of government inquiries in Denmark and Norway examining journalism’s digital future. In many ways they mirror the proceedings currently underway at the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission here in the United States. Omdal writes, “The entire state media support system is up for revision and is likely to be subjected to a complete restructuring. The department for culture set up a committee in 2009 under the leadership of former state secretary Yngve Sletholm and is to present suggestions for future media support by the end of 2010,” roughly the same timeline as the FCC and FTC inquiries.

However, the substance of the debates illustrates some dramatically different assumptions about public policy and public funding for journalism in both countries. Omdal argues that the most important question in the debate over public funding of the news “is the discussion about whether support is to be moved from the product to the producers.” He argues, “The Norwegian committee should take this one step further and consider the possibility of moving financial support all the way to the individual journalist.” While Omdal acknowledges the important role journalism institutions can play, he says that “most top investigative journalism around the world is already carried out by freelance reporters who earn their income from a variety of sources,” and asks why government shouldn’t be one of those sources.

He describes a system already in place in Norway similar to the National Endowment for the Arts in the US that supports “writers, visual artists, musicians and filmmakers.” By his calculation, repurposing money currently spent on media production support and using it to support journalists “who work in investigative fields, who ask questions and refuse to take no for an answer” would fund 1,000 new journalism jobs.

Omdal also points to The Danish committee’s inquiry into these issues, which suggested that funding for all “journalistic proposals; documentaries, debate series, large-scale productions or new journalistic products” should be evaluated “independent of the platform used.” Thus, “new net-based quality journalism will compete on equal terms with traditional newspaper production.” In short, both Norway and Denmark, like the US, are dealing with a public funding system designed primarily to support public broadcasting. While the debate about public funding for journalism has progressed further abroad, due to its long and successful history there, Omdal points to the US for its innovation and experimentation with new models and collaborations in both the commercial and non-commercial sector. It’s clear from this article that we need to take the international conversation about the future of journalism across borders and into the luminal space between models.

Now is the time to open up debate and draw on the lessons from other nations. Omdal writes, “This debate must not be gagged by the predictable shouts about press independence and the threat to free expression such a system will inevitably entail. A lot of the best journalism in the Nordic countries is already publicly financed.” At this time of such change, Omdal seems to suggest that we should explore all forms of “journalistic renaissance” and open up space for debate and experimentation, not foreclose our options before we have all the facts.

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