December 22, 2008

A Modest Proposal to Save Journalism

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you read the newspaper regularly? In all likelihood you do not; according to a 2006 Pew Research Center for People & the Press poll, the majority of the public no longer reads newspapers on a regular basis. Print journalism has reached a critical crossroads, its future uncertain.

You might have heard that the Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy. Among its many entertainment holdings, the company owns the Chicago Tribune (founded in 1847), Los Angeles Times (1881), Newsday (1940), the Baltimore Sun (1837) and the Hartford Courant (1764). The Tribune Company is not alone; nearly every newspaper has been forced to lay off staff and cut back on its coverage. The New York Times has had to mortgage its headquarters, and CNN recently fired science reporter Miles O'Brien and several producers in an effort to consolidate staff.

I have watched with sadness as my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, has eliminated its extensive Sunday book review section, its Sunday opinion section, and reduced its magazine from a weekly to a monthly. It is a shadow of its former self of just a few years ago.

So what, you might be thinking, doesn’t the Internet and television provide our news in the digital age? Newspapers might seem like relics from the past, but they are part of a social institution that is vital for any democracy. If you take a look at the founding dates above, newspapers have been with us for a long time, some even longer that the republic itself.

For those that adhere to the structural functionalism model of social institutions, the decline of newspapers might seem like a benign shift in the reordering of society. Functionalists see society as a system of interrelated parts, each serving a purpose, and could conclude that print journalism no longer fulfills a unique, meaningful purpose. Like a free market economist, a functionalist might argue that print journalism should be allowed to disappear because it has not remained competitive in the marketplace. Newspapers are slower forms of communication than television and the Internet, which can provide news updates almost instantly.

Whether we read their work in print or online, written news must not fade away. In-depth coverage and investigative reporting are time consuming and thus costly but necessary for transparency in government and other important institutions.

You might have noticed that many of our major social institutions have nearly collapsed recently. From our entire banking system to the auto industry, the economy isn’t faring so well. The government hasn’t operated so smoothly either (I’m thinking Hurricane Katrina here, for starters), and the education system is struggling.

But we don’t just let these vital institutions collapse, and we shouldn’t let quality journalism die either.

Without the so-called fourth estate there is no democracy. Newspapers play a central role in investigative journalism. Television and the Internet can too, but too often television can focus on emotional immediacy and lacks analysis. Journalism can be great online, yet all too often much of the “news” is more about entertainment value than it is about providing meaningful coverage (for an example go to the CNN website front page).

For years, media critics have expressed concern about growing media monopolies, as conglomerates like the Tribune Company and others (like Time Warner, Disney, News Corp. and Viacom) bought out their competitors. As fewer corporations own more and more newspapers, television networks, movie studios, book publishers, and other forms of media, those with competing views will find themselves unable to compete with media giants. With more pooled reporting and less competition to get a story, journalism itself might not pursue stories as aggressively. clip_image002

We are seeing that these corporate behemoths do not always work from a business standpoint either. Sociologist Max Weber argued that while large bureaucracies could efficiently accomplish tasks through division of labor and established hierarchies, he also warned of the iron cage of bureaucracy, a rigid and limiting outcome of bureaucracies. It is very possible that these large corporations lost sight of the initial purpose of journalism as profit becomes the central goal rather than producing quality products.

Just as we don’t expect education and government to turn a profit, perhaps we shouldn’t expect journalism to either. But reporters, editors, and other staff need to get paid, so here’s my modest proposal: operate newspapers like non-profit organizations that perform a public service, and give them full non-profit tax-exempt status. Without shareholders to appease, publishers could get back to the business of reporting and stop worrying about profits. Newspapers could hold fundraisers and benefits, just as museums do.

I write this from the perspective of a sociologist, not a business consultant (but I have lots of opinions if anyone at the Times is interested). A reduced op-ed section means fewer academics have the opportunity to share their research and overall perspectives with the general public. More importantly, journalism is the social institution that challenges others to keep their promises and uphold their responsibilities. When it is at its best, journalism creates an informed citizenry, and the more knowledgeable the public is, hypothetically anyway, the better its institutions work.


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Public ownership of major media institutions is something I'd definitely endorse! Part of the problem with print media is its being beholden to their owners who can (and do) use them as their mouthpiece. Public ownership wouldn't guarantee neutrality (though the BBC here is committed to it, albeit of a rather faux kind), but it could help develop a healthier marketplace of ideas.

Maybe the reason for newspaper and news corporations decline isn't ownership and capitalism crippling its freedom to carry on as the hope for humanity, but because it needs a fundamental change in the approach to its reason for being. The journalism students at my college were taught to think of themselves as the fourth branch of the government. But there's one problem with that. They were neither elected or appointed by anyone but themselves. This is probably why shows like The Daily Show and Colbert Report are becoming so popular. Finally reporters are the ones being held accountable.

If reporters would just start thinking of themselves as people and not government officials, maybe they could get back to connecting with the public. They could write stories that people are waiting for.

The news often seems redundant. While the names and places are different the stories are always the same. If reporters are as powerful as they think they are, then maybe they need to start influencing the public positively instead of just trying to be the loudest voice in front of an unruly mob. Maybe if we heard more stories about government officials who are truly standing up for the people instead of letting them down, we could start creating heroes instead of killing them.

One of the biggest stories I was impacted by was when all those Catholic priests got arresting for child molesting. I'm not saying that story shouldn't have been told, but the majority of Catholic priests are good men trying to make a difference. You don't hear too many stories about them.

All I'm asking for is a little balance. And if that balance can only be achieved by comedians, then I can't wait to tune in tomorrow.

I recently heard about what is happening to the Tribune Company. I knew that the growing interest of the internet and the "I want it now" idea of today's society would diminish journalism, but I did not ever think that it would lead to companies going bankrupt. As a college student studying journalism, I always saw myself working at for a magazine or newspaper. In today's economy, everybody knows it is difficult to find a good, secure job. Since print journalism has taken a beating, it will be hard for us students to find a job when we graduate. I finally found something I'm interested in, and now that the jobs are disappearing, what's left for us?

Ownership of The St. Petersburg Times offers an interesting alternative.

I'm amazed you missed this Karen, you've totally missed the mark. NPR tries to do what you suggest, but even they are laying off journalists and resorting to corporate finance. Much more appalling is how the real problem for Journalists is how they are to compete with the growing number of ideological ditto heads in society. They are the real killers of journalism. Today's Washington Post article made me remember this blog entry:

The decline of newspapers was a completely inevitable event, and in no way threatens the future of “quality journalism”. The Internet has effectively replaced newspapers as the written news source of choice in America. However this doesn’t mean that newspapers couldn’t have avoided the disastrous situation they find themselves in today. Their current state stems from the way newspapers handled the advent of the Internet. When confronted with a competitor that can update their stories twenty four hours a day, the smart move would have been to put an emphasis on creating thoroughly reported, well written articles, that provide a unique perspective that would keep readers coming back. This tactic would counter nicely with the quick, to the point manner in which stories were written online at the advent of the Internet. Instead newspapers chose to mimic the web, writing shorter features, making the fact that the paper was becoming more and more irrelevant even more apparent. In addition newspapers were very slow to make it to the Internet, and when the websites were finally up they employed a terribly complicated payment system that scared away readers from newspaper’s online content. Soon enough the newspapers began feeling an economic pinch, and writers began to look at the Internet as the future. In recent years a bevy of writers have made the jump to online writing, a large number of which were longtime sports writers for large newspapers. Jay Mariotti, a long time beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly two decades abruptly quit to work for after, “Seeing the writing on the wall”. This migration has saturated the web with quite a bit of talented writers. The powerful voices and perspectives of today’s web journalist ensure that journalistic quality will carry on. The question remains where do newspapers go from here? While I wouldn’t compare the newspaper business to the banking and auto industries, I do think it is too engrained in society to disappear completely, but how can it continue with relevance? I suggest it operates with a three day a week circulation, using the extra day to analyze compelling stories from all angles. Maybe this will produce this generation’s Watergate story. If the newspapers do want to continue as a daily going online, with an easily operated pay pal type system, which enables a reader to buy the paper at his or her leisure. These might be the only ways newspapers will be able to compete in a country that has developed a taste for immediate information.

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