Fourth estate foreclosure: why we need a National Endowment for Journalism

by Alex Stonehill, Common Language Project

2009 promises to be another tough year for the journalism industry, and it looks like it’s our turn to take a beating here in Seattle. The imminent closure of the Seattle Post–Intelligencer, the city’s oldest and second largest newspaper was announced last week, just a few months after the second round of major staff cutbacks in 2008 went down at our other major newspaper, the Seattle Times.

With the country sliding into a massive recession, two major foreign wars raging, federal investigators uncovering a series of juicy political scandals, and our first black President entering office, all on the tail of an exciting local weather emergency, it’s hard to imagine the newspaper industry is having trouble finding news people want to read.

So what’s the problem? Industry insiders blame the internet for all of newspapers’ woes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Here’s my basic take on what really happened: As control of papers and other news sources were consolidated and corporatized over the last decade, decision making was wrested away from editors and publishers who actually know and care about journalism, and into the hands of businessmen and boards of directors who brought the wisdom of the business world to newspapers… and promptly ran them into the ground.

At the first hint of internet-induced financial trouble, they started cutting costs, and the first thing they cut was ‘enterprise reporting’ – investigative beats and international bureaus that are the darlings of old school, prestige-oriented newspapermen, but that business school economics tells us are products with very elastic demand.

News consumers won’t miss investigative reports into corruption in local government or coverage of important events taking place on the other side of the globe, the logic goes, because if the paper doesn’t cover it, it won’t make it onto readers’ radar at all. Better to focus on coverage of local sports and weather – things that readers care about because they’re happening right outside their windows – and that is cheap to produce.

The trouble with that logic is that it’s in coverage of these local events that newspapers face their biggest competition from the internet. Anyone can live-blog from a local sporting event or repost forecasts from the national weather service, so why would news consumers wait until tomorrow’s paper comes out to read about things they can find out about online as they happen?

Web 2.0 has universalized the means to distribute information that is easily collected like sports scores, election results or weather reports, but it hasn’t really changed the amount of effort, skill and contacts that investigative or international reporting requires. Even if the distribution models have changed, we still need strong, professional institutions like newspapers to gather and make public that important information.

That’s why we need to act now.

Few heads turn in Washington DC when a regional paper from a distant corner of the country folds. But if the newspaper crisis continues and we start hearing talk of national institutions like the New York Times or the Washington Post closing their doors, people will panic about the grim prospects of a democracy without a fourth estate.

At best we’ll get the same solution we’ve gotten for all of the problems that we knew were looming, but tried to ignore until it was finally impossible: a newspaper industry bailout. And it won’t work for the same reason the financial bailout and the auto industry bailouts probably won’t work – it will just pump more money into flawed institutions under failed leadership, without addressing their flaws or changing their leaders.

The better alternative is to act now, before panic ensues, and actually change the way we think about journalism. Is it a product that corporations sell to us in whatever form is most profitable, and only as long as the money keeps flowing? Or is it something that we think of as a public good and value for its own sake?

If we choose the latter, we should urge the incoming administration to create a new National Endowment for Journalism - let’s call it the NEJ - a federal fund aimed at supplementing the free market for media and enhancing the aspects of journalism that contribute most to the public welfare

One simple idea would be to create an enterprise reporting fund where editors at existing newspapers (or radio stations, TV stations or websites) could apply for money to execute reporting projects they couldn’t otherwise afford, allowing them to pay for staffing, reporting expenses, travel abroad and production of in-depth international or investigative coverage.

The Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting has been funding reporting using this model on a smaller scale for several years with a lot of success (disclosure: the CLP received a Pulitzer Center grant last year for reporting on water scarcity in East Africa). Newspapers would keep the same means of distribution, but could grow their revenues by delivering an enhanced product at little additional cost.

Another great use of NEJ funds would be to enhance public broadcasting. Currently, NPR and its local affiliates only get about a third of their funding from grants, and most of those come from private foundations, not the government. It’s a similar story for PBS stations. An injection of cash would allow NPR to improve its coverage and expand its reach, and would allow PBS to spin off the news shows it already produces into a 24 hour news channel that could do what cable news channels don’t – cover a diverse range of stories with more on-the-ground reporting and less talking head analysis, and broadcast some of the fantastic current events-related documentaries that are being made all the time but struggle to find distribution.

If we want to get even more ambitious, we could create a National Public Newspaper using a similar funding model as NPR or PBS (government funding mixed with reader support, private grants and corporate underwriting). The newspaper would cover national and international affairs, as well as local stories of national interest, but not be targeted toward any particular region of the country. Rather than competing with local for-profit newspapers, it could actually help them by allowing them to rerun its original international and national coverage at low rates, and by paying to use their infrastructure to publish and distribute the national public paper locally.

The value that these new media resources would provide--in supplementing our struggling education system, in articulating our national identity, in ensuring our ability to make informed democratic decisions, and in salvaging the integrity of our existing news media--to me far outweigh their financial cost.

The Pulitzer Center funded 25 extensive international reporting projects last year for only $270,000. The BBC covers the globe with the world’s largest network of reporters for TV, radio and the web, and still has room in its $6 billion annual budget to produce loads of entertainment programming.

All of the NEJ projects proposed here could probably be executed for a few hundred million dollars a year in government funds. To put it in perspective, that’s about how much the state and federal governments combined are likely to spend each year for the next decade to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, or the cost of roughly 12 hours of the war in Iraq.

The BBC model also provides a strong counterexample to the most obvious criticism of this idea – that government-funded media invites corruption. The BBC has operated for 80 years as an autonomous public corporation funded through tax dollars, without its editorial independence being compromised by government interference. Besides, many of our worst fears for how integrity and editorial independence in journalism might be compromised by government control have already been realized with papers under corporate control – consider Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell weighing Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich’s offer to facilitate Tribune’s sale of the Chicago Cubs if Zell would fire newspaper editors critical of the governor.

An NEJ with nonpartisan leadership and independent control over funding and editorial decisions could only be an improvement over the corporate media ownership model. Best of all its formation would create jobs for some of the legions of newly laid off journalists and editors soon to be loosed on the streets of Seattle and across the country by a shrinking newspaper industry. We’ll be paying their salaries anyway when they hit the unemployment rolls. We might as well save American journalism while we’re at it.

article originally published at http://www.commonlanguageproject.net/content/contentpages/2009/blog-stonehill-4t....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey