Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saving The News

Victor Pickard, Josh Stearns and Craig Aaron from ‘Free Press Net’ have authored a report: ‘Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy’. Identifying the current crisis in journalism, they contend that so far:

“…there has been little discussion about the policies needed to foster quality journalism and give communities the news and information they require. And those
in the position to make changes or with the most at stake in the outcome, whether policymakers, public interest advocates or journalists themselves, either failed to grasp the structural nature of this crisis or failed to recognize it as a policy problem. Further undercutting chances for broad-based support for imaginative alternatives is a dominant frame that sees the demise of newspapers as a natural progression. According to this view, the newspaper, like the horse and buggy, has outlived its utility. The market has spoken, and new technologies will lead the way. Another school — no less adamant — blames the Internet for all of the industry’s woes, as if the Web could be put back in the bottle. And skeptics from across the political spectrum see professional journalism as a flawed system unworthy of saving. Others rightly believe this crisis offers no easy solutions, especially given current economic
conditions. Although it is true that no magic bullet exists to immediately solve the journalism crisis, to resign ourselves to fatalism, given the stakes, is simply not an option. So what is to be done?”

The authors analyse a range of strategies and possibilities for the future of journalism: not for profit, low-profit and cooperative models, community and municipal models, foundation and endowment support, public and government models and new commercial models.

They also outline the possibility of fostering new ownership structures by: the establishment of non profit and low-profit news organizations through tax exempt and low-profit limited liability models; incentives for divestiture creating tax incentives and revising bankruptcy laws to encourage local, diverse, non profit, low-profit and employee ownership; journalism jobs program funding training and retraining for novice and veteran journalists in multimedia and investigative reporting; R & D fund for journalistic innovation; investing in innovative projects and experimenting to identify and nurture new models and new public media transforming public broadcasting into a world-class non commercial news operation utilizing new technology and focused on community service.

This American report is quite a long read but is worthy of consideration and discussion in Australia given that we are the 51st state. Plus, the journalism crisis is far worse in this country given the concentration of media ownership.

Some of the ideas we liked are:

Non profit ownership or low-profit alternatives:

“Indeed, the L3C promises advantages from both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. “The L3C is different from a typical nonprofit because it can earn a return, but the social purpose must trump the financial purpose,” explains Sally Duros, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter, writing for The Huffington Post. “The idea of the Newspaper L3C is to bring back those journalistic contributions like neighborhood reporting, music reviews and book sections and make them part of the community service. And ads are part of the mix, too.”
Worker-Owned Media and Cooperatives

Among those most dedicated to preserving local media institutions — and the hardest hit by the current downturn — are working journalists themselves. In this light, the interest in employee-owned newspapers is gaining traction in the United States. Without the pressure to satisfy shareholders’ desire for higher returns, employee ownership may result in a higher premium being placed on sustaining jobs, preserving high-quality content, and service to the local community. A number of U.S. papers have been worker-owned at some point in their history. A contemporary example is the Omaha World-Herald, the largest daily in Nebraska, which has been employee-owned since 1979. Internationally, employee-owned models include prominent magazines like Der Spiegel in Germany and newspapers like Le Monde in France.
Community-Based Projects

Across the country, new local reporting projects are bubbling up to fill the gaps left by shrinking newsrooms at local papers and broadcast stations. These new projects share a public service mission, and many focus on sending reporters to cover beats that have been long forgotten or neglected, including coverage of city halls and statehouses. Capturing the unique role of these community-oriented projects, as well as the challenges they face, one article notes: “These tiny nonprofits — from Chicago and Minneapolis to New Haven and San Diego— are, at the very least, trailblazers. Some have become an integral source of information for their respectivecommunities. All share a challenge: growing an audience while learning to break even.”
Municipal Ownership

A glance at the history of newspapers shows a number of interesting alternatives that often have been overlooked, but that may hold lessons for addressing today’s crisis. Although more research is needed to understand why most of these models ultimately failed, there are several that are worth noting here. Compelling historical examples of ad-free, subscriber-supported newspapers include New York’s PM and Chicago’s The Day Book. Ultimately, these pioneering newspapers folded for want of adequate funding—in the case of The Day Book, a sudden increase in the cost of paper sank what had been a sustainable model—but both maintained enthusiastic audiences until the end. Similar non profit models were seriously considered by the Hutchins Commission, a blue ribbon panel of experts in the 1940s that grappled with a crisis of the press bearing many similarities to the one facing us today and presented a landmark report on the role of media in a democratic society.
Foundation-Supported News Operations

Foundations already play a key role in supporting investigative journalism. The Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting are both impressive, longstanding models that depend at least in part on foundation money for their operations. Two newer examples of this model are the recently announced Huffington Post Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Kaiser Health News initiative. There are also several university-based reporting projects like the University of Maryland’s Journalism Center on Children and Families and Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Private Endowments

Instead of relying on the ongoing support of foundations, some commentators suggest that newspapers ought to build up their own funding through endowments. David Swensen and Michael Schmidt of Yale University, writing in the New York Times, suggest that those who care about the future of journalism should consider modeling newspaper endowments after those of colleges and universities.
The Public Media Model

Many people have begun to look to public broadcasting as a viable model for saving journalism. “The most successful hybrid of old and new media comes from the last place you’d expect,” entrepreneurial business magazine Fast Company recently wrote. “NPR’s digital smarts, nonprofit structure, and good old-fashioned shoe leather just might save the news.” The article notes that “NPR’s listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today’s 2.3 million daily circulation or Fox News’ 2.8 million prime-time audience.

When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. Despite their continued success, public media aren’t immune from the economic recession, either: In December, NPR canceled several shows and let go 64 employees.
New Government Programs & Institutions

As talk of bailouts and stimulus bills dominated the headlines last fall and winter, discussions picked up steam on whether federal funding should be dedicated specifically to rescuing journalism and journalists. One New Deal-inspired proposal was the creation of a new “Federal Writers Project” to employ reporters who had lost their jobs. The original FWP, a core initiative of the Works Progress Administration, employed more than 6,000 writers, artists and historians who produced a range of important, local projects such as regional guides, plays and oral histories.
Journalism Experimentation Fund

One of the strengths of the national endowment model in addressing the journalism crisis is its potential to foster experimentation and study replicable best practices. While few agree on the solution to the crisis in journalism, there is nearly universal agreement on the need to experiment with new models. Just as government invests in medical and scientific research and development, it could establish a fund to support innovative journalism projects and foster new models for news and information. Based on models that already exist in the sciences, transportation, energy, defense and health, the federal government could establish a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. Funding for such centers comes from different agency budgets and is often distributed to academic institutions and other nonprofit research centers.

Insisting that this funding go to institutions like universities, however, may actually hinder innovation and development of individual projects that are unaffiliated with those institutions. Ideally, such a program would include two funding streams, one focused on research and the other on new models. This second funding stream would function like a public-interest-oriented venture capitalist. Some new journalistic initiatives may be attractive for investors given that quality information will always be in demand. Back in 2007, Wired reported that citizen journalism was “red hot,” with Associated Content landing $10 million in financing from Canaan Partners;
NowPublic receiving $10.6 million in financing from Rho Ventures; and OhMyNews
landing $11 million from SoftBank. However, funding for this kind of experimentation has since become mostly the province of a few foundations like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, whose Knight News Challenge plans to invest “at least $25 million over five years in the search for bold community news and social media experiments.” It is possible that such a model could be replicated on a much larger scale at the federal level.

Journalism Jobs Program

Given that Congress has voted to dramatically increase funding for AmeriCorps, an independent federal agency that aims to “foster civic engagement through service and volunteering,”105 Eric Klinenberg of New York University has proposed earmarking some of these funds specifically for a program to train the next generation of local journalists. These “journalism fellows” would most likely be recent college graduates who would be trained to do multimedia reporting for outlets in their cities and towns. Such efforts may be done in partnership with local media organizations, and foundations could provide outlets for the content or office space.
Public Subsidies and Policy interventions

Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, two of the co-founders of Free Press, say journalism is so important that it should be considered no less a public policy priority than national security or education:
“Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. … Just as there came a moment when policy-makers recognized the necessity of investing tax dollars to create a public education system to teach our children, so a moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars tocreate and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens.”
International Subsidy Models

When Sweden faced a newspaper crisis 30 years ago, the government taxed newspaper ads to create revenue for a fund that was administered by an independent agency to support struggling newspapers. The government introduced press subsidies to broaden the bounds of news discourse by supporting smaller newspapers and staving off the increasing number of newspaper bankruptcies. Distributed by an administrative governmental body known as the “Press Subsidies Council,” money is automatically calculated according to circulation and revenue and then allocated to newspapers other than the dominant paper in a particular municipality or region.

France is considering a similar program to Sweden’s right now. But the idea that has received the most press attention is France’s plan to give every 18-year-old a one-year subscription to one of the country’s major newspapers. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also called for all high school students to receive free subscriptions to newspapers. Asking for a $780 million bailout package for France’s ailing newspaper industry, Sarkozy asserted that it is the state’s responsibility to provide for a free and independent press. More than encouraging young people to learn the value of the
press and to continue to subscribe to newspapers in the future, the government
also implemented a nine-fold increase in the state’s support for newspaper deliveries and doubled its annual print advertising outlay.
Direct Government Stimulus

While the public appetite for major bailouts of the media is unknown, several ambitious proposals have been put forward to prop up insolvent news organizations during the current recession. For example, McChesney and Nichols call for an emergency stimulus for the next three years to buy time to transition to other models. They also advocate for directly subsidizing high school and college newspapers.151 Mark Cooper has also proposed such a fund, though he explicitly rejects the notion of helping existing newspapers.
The authors conclude thus:

“Journalism is a critical infrastructure. It is too precious for a democratic society simply to sit back and pray that the market will magically sustain it. The crisis in journalism is undeniably an economic issue, exacerbated by shifting revenue streams, new forms of content creation, and new methods of distribution. But it is also fundamentally a policy problem. While we explore new economic models for journalism, we must also examine what role government can play in supporting this indispensable institution. It is in large part policy decisions — and the political will to make the right ones — that will decide what is next for journalism.”
The adaptation of any of these initiatives – including self-funded journalism - would be better than what we have at present, but diversity – leading to a range of media voices is the key.

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