Civic Health and Public Journalism

The annual Pew State of the News Media report is like a yearly physical exam for journalism in America. This year the prognosis is mixed, at best. Newspapers are still raking in double-digit operating margins, but after years of consolidation they are over-leveraged with debt that is cutting into their profits. There are more hours of news on local TV, but much of it consists of rebroadcasts, meaning there is actually less original reporting. Tablets and mobile devices are driving significant new traffic to news sites, but monetizing that traffic is still difficult.

A Stress Test for Civic Health

Underneath all the numbers is a troubling narrative that has spanned the last few Pew reports and continues through this year’s study. Everyone agrees that we are in a tumultuous time for journalism in America, with both enormous opportunity and profound challenges — the numbers confirm that. But what is harder to quantify is the impact this unevenness and uncertainty is having on local communities. The authors of the Pew report provide some hints.

“The civic implications of the decline in newspapers are … becoming clearer,” the authors write. “[M]ore evidence emerged that newspapers (whether accessed in print or digitally) are the primary source people turn to for news about government and civic affairs. If these operations continue to shrivel or disappear, it is unclear where, or whether, that information would be reported.”

While a growing cadre of reporting projects and journalism sites is contributing in critical ways to expanding news in many communities, most still come nowhere near the size of traditional newsrooms, and many are struggling to transition from startup to sustainability. Some of those startups are being developed by committed journalists who have left newspapers. Pew estimates that 1,000 newsgathering jobs were lost in 2010, which is a small number compared to the years prior, but still significant.

As news staffs shrink, many papers are shrinking too. While new digital platforms obviously create efficiencies and some have argued that journalism organizations are inevitably going to shrink, the Pew report suggests that even inside the newspaper industry “analysts and some in management have begun to talk openly … about whether the cutting has gone as far as it can” without fundamentally undercutting news organizations’ ability to do their job. The Pew report’s authors echo the concerns of the FCC in its recent Information Needs of Communities report that all of these cutbacks have “caused genuine harm” to our democracy and our communities.

What’s The Prescription?

This latest Pew report makes it clear that there is no one path toward securing a robust and sustainable future for journalism and ensuring that communities have access to the news and information we need. Instead, we need to be exploring all the possible paths forward, and looking for ways to make those diverse models and streams intersect. The Pew report predicts a sizable spike in the number of newspapers moving toward paywalls and digital subscription models, previews a new content-licensing plan the AP largely developed and calls for a more aggressive move toward digital and mobile platforms.

Public media is mentioned only briefly throughout the report, save for a short section on NPR in the chapter on audio. But I think that the report’s findings make an important civic argument for why expanding public media should be higher up on our priority list. As I pointed out above, the Pew data illustrates the civic stakes of the ongoing changes in journalism. However, many of the prescriptions the report describes could exacerbate the problem, further cutting some communities off from the news they need.

Much of the debate about new business models and revenue streams focus on how news organizations can better control and monetize their content. These strategies are based on creating scarcity by limiting who can see your content (paywalls), or how far it can spread (via licensing schemes). Journalist Tom Stites has written passionately about how many of these trends have led to very real “news deserts”:

Elites and the affluent are awash in information designed to serve them, but everyday people, who often grapple with significantly different concerns, are hungry for credible information they need to make their best life and citizenship decisions. Sadly, in many communities there’s just no oasis, no sustenance to be found — communities where the ‘new news ecosystem’ is not a cliché but a desert.

Pew suggests that we are seeing a trend towards niche models and payment plans, but I think we need to be working with equal or greater force toward more “public journalism.” The clearest example of what I mean by “public journalism” is, of course, public media. We should expand funding for public media, and remove some of the longstanding funding restrictions that focus narrowly on TV and radio.

NPR and PBS have shown their willingness to invest in innovation — Pew reports that NPR’s weekly listenership was down slightly this year, but its digital audience skyrocketed. But let’s also be sure we are providing enough funding to support local stations’ innovative approaches. The Pew report notes that the number of stations continues to grow, but we must ensure they also have the capacity to leverage their unique local position in the digital age. I recognize that this may be a tough sell politically, but popular support for public media has remained strong year after year.

Public journalism also includes great reporting from local volunteers at community TV and radio stations. It includes donor- and foundation-supported nonprofit journalism websites and journalism school reporting projects as well as models like Stites’ journalism co-op, in which the audience owns the publication. The landscape of this kind of “public journalism” represents a diverse network of civically oriented and locally driven news organizations.

As I read through the Pew report I was struck by the need to look for answers through the lens of civic health. Our media system will be strongest with a vibrant and diverse mix of for-profit, nonprofit, public and community journalism organizations. Just as monoculture crops harm the food system because they all share the same weaknesses, monocultural thinking has, for too long, hurt our journalism ecosystem.

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