Saving American Journalism
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
An assessment of the problems facing American journalism and proposals for addressing them are the subjects of "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," a report out of Columbia University by Professor Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): The state of independent journalism in America is a glass half empty, glass half full kind of an issue. There are good reasons for pessimism. Newspapers have folded, broadcasters have cut staff, and the overall number of daily newspaper journalists in the country has decreased by almost a third in the last 10 years.
But, the glass gets filled by the potential for innovation in journalism. The internet is creating new platforms for journalists, new ways to tell stories and potentially new business models for the news industry. The Columbia Journalism Review just published a lengthy article titled "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," and one of the authors is my guest. Michael Schudson is a MacArthur Fellow, distinguished scholar of journalism and democracy at the Columbia School of Journalism, author of "The Good Citizen," and former professor at UCSD. And, Michael, welcome to These Days.
MICHAEL SCHUDSON (Journalist): It’s great to be here. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Michael, tell us if you can, I know this is a very long article and you’ve gone into it in depth. I wonder if you can tell us in a few short sentences what’s happening to traditional journalism today? Give us your take on the situation.
SCHUDSON: It ran into a truck.
SCHUDSON: I mean, it was a combination of things. But essentially there’s a terrible advertising crisis for American newspapers especially, broadcast a little less so but Craigslist will take your classified ad for free; the local newspaper won’t. And the local newspapers have been receiving 20 to 40% of their advertising income, and advertising overall is about 75% of their income but 20 to 40% of that comes from the classifieds. And in – and there’s eBay and there’s monster.com and there are various other online possibilities for cheaper and more targeted advertising and the newspapers are losing that. Newspapers are losing readers, newspapers are then cutting back on their journalists and providing fewer services and less news coverage. One thing leads to another and you have a real crisis, worse than anything in the American past for newspaper journalism.
CAVANAUGH: And that’s the model that we all grew up with, a newspaper with advertising in it delivering us the news. I wonder, has that always been the way we’ve gotten the news in this country?
SCHUDSON: Well, we’ve had advertising supported newspapers for more than a century, well more than a century. But in our earliest days, 18th and early 19th century, ads were somewhat incidental. Political parties supported newspapers and newspapers were kind of an adjunct to other aspects of a job printing business. They weren’t expected to make very much money.
CAVANAUGH: And in addition to new sources of advertising on the internet siphoning ads from newspapers, what have they done on – what has the internet done on the news side to siphon, if you will, news from newspapers?
SCHUDSON: Well, here the complication is the newspapers were caught not really knowing what to do with online possibilities and they somewhat belatedly got into the online news business themselves. But, as people say, they just gave it away. They, with rare exceptions, do not charge for their mined news and so their own product, their website, undercuts the demand for their print product, which has the much more advertising and which people pay for.
CAVANAUGH: Now, it’s not just newspapers that have suffered in this decline, if we can say, of traditional journalism. The broadcast networks, news networks, have cut back staff and so forth. What’s the reason for that?
SCHUDSON: Again, there’s a migration of advertising, it’s not just classifieds but display advertising is also finding new places for themselves outside broadcast and print. And so in this climate, aggravated significantly by the recession, broadcast finds itself in trouble, too.
CAVANAUGH: So in this maelstrom for traditional journalism, we find some room for optimism in the increase of – in news and the way news is transmitted on the internet. Tell us a little bit about your article and what you say the potential is for news on the internet.
SCHUDSON: Well, actually the first interview that Leonard Downie and I did together—we did some separately but the first one we did together was in San Diego…
SCHUDSON: …at the Voice of San Diego, which is well known nationally. It’s now about five years old. I think it’s five years old this week, if I’m not mistaken, which makes it sort of the granddaddy of online professional news organizations, that is, they’re online only. They’re run by professional journalists, about a dozen of them. And they decided at the beginning to focus on what, in the report, we call accountability journalism, that is, you know, covering city hall, covering tough, central public issues, schools or land use. You know, I don’t think you find any sports and you don’t find much in the way of, you know, covering entertainment or the arts at Voice of San Diego. You find the kind of news that is often the first to go as newspapers, in particular, cut back on their news coverage, so it’s quite crucial the kind of thing they’re doing and there are startups like them growing all over the country. Their great advantage is that it doesn’t cost them any money to get their newspaper to your door.
SCHUDSON: They don’t need trucks. They don’t need paper and they don’t need ink, so their cost structure is completely different from a traditional newspaper.
CAVANAUGH: But they do need money to…
SCHUDSON: They do.
CAVANAUGH: …pay the journalists and so what is the Voice of San Diego, what do you like about their business model?
SCHUDSON: Well, they have a great business model. They have a large gift from…
SCHUDSON: …from a philanthropist, Buzz Woolley, and – but they’re actually not leaving it at that. I mean, they are doing their own efforts at marketing, at getting some online advertising and seeking other foundation grants, so they’re trying to diversify their funding. But there’s no question but it was the foresight of an individual philanthropist who made them possible and that’s been a key factor, that plus money from the Knight Foundation in particular in the development of other online startups across the country.
CAVANAUGH: How do you compare Voice of San Diego with San Diego News Network, the other news organization we have here in the digital realm? What’s the difference between the two?
SCHUDSON: Well, San Diego News Network, as I understand it, is intended to be a for profit operation. I’ve not been following them very closely since I left San Diego but they’re also one of the really quite interesting operations in that there are not very many online only news operations that are trying to make a go of it and are making a go of it on a for profit model. They seem to have some real chances of success there.
CAVANAUGH: Now you also write in your article, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism," in the Columbia Journalism Review, you also write about the idea of universities developing something akin to a teaching hospital but for journalism, something like a real teaching newsroom. How would that contribute to the health of independent journalism?
SCHUDSON: Well, this is also something we’ve seen developing around the country. Maybe one of the most interesting examples is at Northeastern University in Boston where a veteran investigative reporter for the Boston Globe left the Boston Globe, went to Northeastern to teach journalism, runs an investigative journalism workshop and in the course of two years, his students had 12 front page Boston Globe stories. You know, he had arrangements with the Globe before he left that they would take a close look at what his students produced. He guided them, chose the topics, edited them carefully. But the result is, the Boston Globe, without it costing them anything, has, you know, a significant amount of very serious, hardhitting journalism coming from students. Now, that’s a complicated model because it means that the fledgling journalists, the students in the classroom, are providing for modest charge or no change, what journalists at a newspaper used to be getting paid for. So, you know, it’s something you want to approach as maybe with reservations but it seems to be working there at Northwestern University in San Diego…
CAVANAUGH: Right. We actually do have Lorie Hearn on the line right now…
CAVANAUGH: …from SDSU’s Watchdog Institute. I’m speaking with Michael Schudson and Lorie Hearn, as I say, is joining us right now. Lorie, welcome to These Days.
LORI HEARN (Director, Watchdog Institute, San Diego State University): Thank you, Maureen. Good morning, Michael.
SCHUDSON: Hi, Lorie.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we’re talking about the Watchdog Institute so, please, Lorie, tell us how the institute works and what it is.
HEARN: Well, the Watchdog Institute began at San Diego State University in November. I founded the institute as a public benefit, nonprofit in California in the late summer. We got up and running, as I said, in November. We have two missions. One is to do investigative journalism that we hope will be distributed widely in the region. We focus on San Diego and Imperial counties. And the other mission is to help mentor and grow the next generation of investigative journalists, which we hope to do here at San Diego State.
CAVANAUGH: Now you actually have a report out today. Tell us about the report and on how many – I guess I should say, how many platforms is this report being disseminated?
HEARN: Well, this report really is our third report since we began and, frankly, one of the most exciting collaborations. We worked with the Investigative Reporting Workshop, which is a project of the School of Communication at American University. They – That is an investigative group of reporters as well. And they did kind of the hard number crunching on the stimulus money. The story essentially is that more than $2 billion in federal stimulus money has come to create green jobs but more than three-quarters of that money has actually gone to foreign companies or to American companies who then have to go overseas to actually buy parts, for example, for wind turbines. That research was done by American and we coordinated with that report in taking the San Diego angle. We have quite a number of commercial wind companies here in San Diego County and basically took the local angle in looking at those companies and how many are American – foreign subsidiaries in the United States and talking to some of the American companies that are based here as well and the difficulties, actually, in getting wind energy parts manufactured in the United States. KGTV was a partner on this as well. They aired a piece last night. That’s Channel 10. And the Union-Tribune, which is our lead partner at the moment, had a story on the front page this morning. And I understand that ABC World News is scheduled to also air a piece tonight.
CAVANAUGH: So, Michael, that sounds exactly what – like exactly what you’re talking about.
SCHUDSON: Yes, it is. And it’s a good example. Lorie, so when the Union-Tribune takes one of your pieces, like this one, is there a financial arrangement between you?
HEARN: Yes. As you have explored in your report, the big question for nonprofit investigative journalism, of course, is the sustainability question. We were able to get started, the Watchdog Institute was able to get started because of an arrangement we had with the San Diego Union-Tribune. I worked at the newspaper, was a reporter and editor for many years, and when I came up with the idea of the Watchdog Institute, I approached the new owners of the newspaper and told them about this and emphasized the importance of investigative journalism, watchdog journalism, and they realized and understood how important this kind of work was to the region and essentially agreed to give us a substantial financial commitment to get started. And in trade for that, we do investigative pieces that appear in the Union-Tribune.
CAVANAUGH: Lorie, I’m wondering, obviously the Watchdog Institute and American University have done the research involved in it. Who actually wrote the story? Your students?
HEARN: No, actually my – I have staff – a full time staff of three…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
HEARN: …experienced reporters. I’m right now, at the moment, well, I’m – We do not have kind of the ambitious model of university involvement in producing local news that is addressed in Michael and Len’s report. But I am, at the moment, co-teaching a class with a professor here in investigative journalism and working with students on some projects that we hope that they will be able to complete by the end of the semester and perhaps be – the aim is to have them be publishable. So we’re taking baby steps here.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
HEARN: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Lorie Hearn, director of the Watchdog Institute, SDSU. And I continue a conversation with my guest Michael Schudson. And I’m wondering, Michael, how do you see groups like the Watchdog Institute actually fitting into this whole reconstruction of American journalism?
SCHUDSON: Well, Lorie used a very important word about – and the word was ‘collaboration.’ She’s collaborating, in this case, with American University and their investigative reporting unit and then publishing the results in a variety of publications. That’s also quite new, for journalism. The newspapers especially, but television as well, tended to be very jealous of…
SCHUDSON: …their own work. Now, under the pressure, under economic pressure, increasingly news organizations are saying, well, if we can cooperate with another news organization, save ourselves some time and money, they can publish, we can publish the same thing. This is happening increasingly. A whole set of leading newspapers in Ohio have arranged a collaborative process. And all kinds of news organizations are collaborating with their own readers and – or viewers and listeners. Minnesota Public Radio has an ambitious effort in which they contact thousands of people in their audience who – with specific questions on specific topics and then those people wind up as contributors, even co-authors, one might say, or sources for news stories. This is – this has always been possible in small ways but new technologies make this so much more efficient so you have these multiply sourced Wiki-like operations…
SCHUDSON: …controlled by or organized through journalists at both traditional and new news organizations.
CAVANAUGH: Do you see that even happening on an international basis?
SCHUDSON: Yes, it is happening on an international basis. The Guardian in London has been very aggressive about efforts like this and some of those efforts are international.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Michael, let’s get down to the funding, the source of funding for these new integrative journalism models that you’ve been talking about to us, and your recommendations all seem to boil down to getting the public more involved in maintaining independent news. And your first recommendation involves nonprofit status. Tell us about that.
SCHUDSON: Well, it would be useful, we think, the data’s not in on this one, but we and others have proposed that it become more clear and easier in the tax laws for for profit news organizations to convert themselves into nonprofits. That would give them certain tax advantages, that would give them – make it easier for foundations to contribute to them, although there are ways for foundations to contribute to for profits as well. But there’s a lack of clarity in what is and is not possible in this regard in the tax code, and we are hopeful that simply to clarify all this would help a lot and let people know what they can and cannot do. So, you know, the government, even when it isn’t directly funding something like news organizations, provides the framework within which certain acts or behaviors become possible and legal or not. And that, you know, any organization needs to have some predictability about that.
CAVANAUGH: And what about philanthropy and foundations? Traditionally, a lot of that money has not gone to support independent journalism.
SCHUDSON: Well, that’s right. This is fairly new. And I guess the overarching premise of our report is that when you’ve seen such a rapid and sharp decline in the number of journalists employed in particularly the newspapers, that are the source of so much of our original reporting, that this is a matter of national – it should be a matter of national concern and that as a society as a whole, we need to take some responsibility for, you know, the state of our public information and public affairs. This includes the nonprofit sector. We think that if you’re concerned about – if a foundation is concerned about education or healthcare or honesty and transparency in government, as various nonprofits are, one of the guarantors of better education, better healthcare and more transparency in government is that you have news organizations that are telling us about these issues. So we were always able to rely on news organizations to do that with the commercial model. With that commercial model in, you know, on the ropes, I think it’s time for other possibilities like philanthropy to come to the fore.
CAVANAUGH: Now a lot of your recommendations sound an awful lot like what’s already happening in public broadcasting but you are really rather critical of public broadcasting. I have to say before I ask for your criticism…
CAVANAUGH: …that KPBS actually is very committed to local news but I understand that’s not the case across the country, and you’d like to see more of it.
SCHUDSON: That’s right. One of our recommendations is that public radio and public television, but we focus particularly on public radio since its news operation is so impressive to us, that – but most NPR affiliates do little or no local reporting. KPBS is unusual that way. So I think there’s interest in National Public Radio in Washington and elsewhere among NPR executives in – they have some proposals about this already, about increasing their capacity for local news reporting. But they have a long way to go in most communities.
CAVANAUGH: Now I think probably one of your most controversial recommendations is a national fund for news created by the FCC. And I’m wondering, you know, as public broadcasting has learned, when you depend on the government funding for money, that government funding seems to shrink. Why do you think that this might work?
SCHUDSON: Well, yeah, we’ve run into more trouble with that recommendation than…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.
SCHUDSON: …any of our others and I think for obvious reasons. You know, the journalists in particular are allergic to the idea…
SCHUDSON: …of government funding. We’re asking them to reconsider that. We’re asking that they remember that the federal government has since 1792 been subsidizing the American press in the early days—1792 was the Postal Act. Newspapers got special privileges in the Post Office and could send copies of their paper to other newspapers without paying postage at all. That was, you know, those early newspapers were basically aggregators and reprinted work from other newspapers so they relied on this. But the founding fathers sort of ideologically and financially subsidized the American press from the beginning. It’s worth remembering that. It’s worth knowing that government funding does not mean Pravda. It – Well, it did…
SCHUDSON: …in the Soviet Union, but it doesn’t have to mean…
SCHUDSON: …Pravda; it can mean the BBC. It can mean free societies in which it partially – in which the news is partially supported by government assistance so…
CAVANAUGH: Well, Michael, excuse me, but I want to – We’re actually out of time at this point but I want to let everyone know if they want to hear more about this topic,
Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie, Jr. will speak on the “Reconstruction of American Journalism.” That’s happening this Friday at 5:00 p.m. in the Copley Auditorium at UCSD’s Institute of the Americas, and that’s where this conversation can continue. Michael, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
SCHUDSON: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know they can post their comments at KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a reminder that the environment belongs to everyone, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.