Are You Exercising Your "Collective Responsibility" for Journalism, Comrade?


Retired newspaper man Leonard Downie, who never in his life worked for any other professional news organization besides the Washington Post, has collaborated with career journalism academic Michael Schudson on a big thumb-sucker entitled "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," [pdf] calling for, among other questionable things, government-subsidized newsrooms. They have teased their study in a WashPost piece today. Here's how it begins:

His friends call him Len

News reporting that holds accountable those with power and influence has been a vital part of American democratic life, especially in places with daily newspapers profitable enough, and with owners public-spirited enough, to maintain substantial reporting staffs. That journalism is now at risk, along with the advertising-supported economic foundations of newspapers.

American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting -- as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy.

As I wrote seven years ago about Downie's execrable book The News About the News, this could have been more honestly labeled "Why Aren't You As Good As We Are?" Listening to Downie offer prescriptions for having the government fix journalism is like listening to a career Goldman Sachs executive issue a 10-point plan on how the government should save the financial system. The perspective is overwhelmingly warped, leading to conclusions like this:

Has written lots about advertising

This emerging journalistic ecosystem, in which the gathering and distribution of news is becoming much more widely dispersed, holds great potential. But it is still quite fragile. Accountability journalism in particular requires significant reporting resources with strong professional leadership and reliable financial support, which the marketplace can no longer be expected to sufficiently supply.

This reminds me of my recent Bloggingheads discussion with fellow woe-is-media stalwart Alex S. Jones (not the UFO New World Order guy). After Jones had gone on about how the "iron core" of news is shrinking, thereby imperiling our democracy, I pointed out that in a blog post I had written just that morning about a flurry of last-minute laws signed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the links I found (thanks to Google News) included, a boating newsletter, and a hip-hop website. Instead of even entertaining the notion that the "iron core" had been increased on net by widespread sources, Jones was horrified. Why, how did I know that was a reliable source! Shame on the mainstream media for not covering each and every law!

At some point, dialogue with these people isn't actually possible. Big-city newspapers are shrinking their staffs, therefore democracy is under threat, full stop. All of which would be of marginal interest, if it weren't for the fact that Dead Tree Central is cooking up a policy smorgasbord that could and probably will eventually affect that vast majority of you who don't read journalism navel-gazing books. To wit:

-- Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented, through action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations -- reporting that too few of them do now. […]

-- A national Fund for Local News should be created with fees the Federal Communications Commission collects from or could impose on telecom users, broadcast licensees or Internet service providers. Grants should be made competitively by independent state Local News Fund Councils to local news organizations for innovations in local news reporting and ways to support it.

There is apparently some optimism in the report about various new journalistic initiatives bubbling up, and good for them, I suppose. But at this point that's like noticing in 1979 that there might be reasons for optimism that race relations have improved since 1963.