If journalism becomes further marginalized, look out world!

Interview with Chuck Lewis, Fund for Independence in Journalism [Inter Press Service]

Shrinking newsrooms, declining sales and audiences, vanishing foreign correspondents, concentration of ownership, shrivelling papers...is journalism imploding? Can independent journalism survive?

"Yes," says Chuck Lewis, founder of the Centre for Public Integrity, and one of the most respected voices in journalism today. And the answer is non-profit journalism.

Lewis is a former producer of the CBS show 60 Minutes, and a journalist-in-residence at American University in Washington. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and many other publications. A pioneer of the non-profit model, Lewis speaks with Miren Gutierrez, IPS Editor-in-Chief about the future of journalism.

IPS: So, the news is that in-depth, independent journalism may endure...But investigative reporting is expensive, it could be risky too. Who will pay for it?

Chuck Lewis: Civic-minded, wealthy individuals who believe in the concept of an "informed citizenry" and public service journalism -- local, regional, national, international...Great work itself will begin to attract "buzz" online, and other revenue sources could open up, from advertising, to subscribers/members, to paid partnerships with existing hollowed out media corporations desperately seeking content, etc. In some parts of the world, such as Europe, government funding or direct public subsidies (as with the BBC) are possible too, with its related issues...

IPS: In your recent article 'The Non-profit Road: It's paved not with gold, but with good journalism', you say that while increasingly newspapers will develop into "print-digital hybrids" (an expression coined by Robert Kuttner, co-founder and editor of the liberal U.S. magazine The American Prospect), advertising revenue is still to come up to editorial payroll levels. So what happens in the meantime?

CL: In the meantime, downsizing will continue, bureaus will close, investigations will not be undertaken or funded...Some media organisations will cease to exist or become unrecognisable vis-à-vis news as we have known it...Celebrity-headline-entertainment-sport-weather pap instead, masquerading as "news".

IPS: What do you think of fads like the so-called "hyper localism" and branding?

CL: Newspapers in the U.S., at least, initially were hyper local...every kid's name in the paper, photos of everyone in school, what's for lunch at school today, etc., etc. It could be that this kind of information -- and individual citizens needing it -- is what builds a dependency, an audience, eyeballs, and eventually a base from which to also do include in-depth journalism…in and of itself, it is unremarkable; if it evolves, it could be exciting and important.

IPS: According to a recent report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, there is a "disconnection" between the public and the press. "Journalists see themselves, as Humphrey Bogart put it in the movie 'Deadline USA', as performing 'a service for public good.' The public doubts that romantic self-image and thinks journalists are either deluding themselves or lying. In the midst of a major downsizing trend and 'citizen journalism' sprouting from every corner of the world, professional journalists seem to be growing defensive, or at best baffled. You speak of a "profession under siege." How should journalists react?

CL: Blogs and citizen journalism have injected substantial media accountability and, dare I say it, a tinge of humility and self-consciousness to many journalists; their every word scrutinised and criticised. Professional journalists should be and are alarmed, incredibly insecure right now about "the biz" and the profession itself, recognising the precarious state of affairs.

Most citizens do not fully grasp the seriousness of the situation, because, at least in the U.S., they are blissfully aloof and ignorant of the intricacies of politics and business and the prices of power...Democracy without an informed citizenry is a charade, to anyone actually paying attention. Sixty percent of Americans thought Saddam Hussein and Iraq had something to do with 9/11 six months after the March 2003 invasion...Yikes!

IPS: How do you think non-profit organisations can save independent journalism?

CL: Non-profit journalism organisations are not directly tethered to marketing and advertising, commercial imperatives and impulses. Stories are done because they ought to be done by someone, and they're not being done...public service journalism, with no titillation required. Major donors should be disclosed, and transparency to the public is important in order to build credibility and respect. Ultimately, the work must be definitive; if it is, the organisation can flourish under good and competent leadership.

IPS: As an example of successful non-profit organisations, you mention the Associated Press, with 3,000 journalists worldwide, The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and others. Do you think they will survive as institutions?

CL: Yes, I believe they will survive, and AP and NPR are, in fact, flourishing, including in a multimedia format.

IPS: In 1988, you founded the CPI (Centre for Public Integrity) with no money but your own, and set out to find philanthropic support. By 2004, you oversaw a full-time staff of 40 and more than 20 part-time, paid intern researchers on a 4.6 million dollar annual budget. What about the CPI model? Could it be imitated?

CL: I believe there could be a CPI in countries throughout the world, and I am not kidding. Do wealthy, educated citizens actually care about their countries and the state of the world, or are they just on the sidelines, sniping to themselves and selfishly hoarding and hiding their money offshore? The U.S. has a system which encourages wealthy donors to create philanthropic institutions which financially grow annually while also avoiding taxes...Many other countries don't have such a system, but wealthy, educated, engaged citizens certainly abound throughout the world, as do journalists in need of new places to work. It is, I believe, a natural confluence and symmetry...

IPS: According to the same report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a look at three dozen websites from a range of media shows that they have done more to exploit immediacy than the potential for depth. If you have a look at a wider array of sites, it seems that web media have yet to invest in original journalism let alone ambitious in-depth projects. Many are just aggregators. Doesn't the non-profit model have still a long way to go?

CL: Aggregating is a problem -- no one wants to pay for reporting, which costs money and takes time and, if investigative or international, also incurs risk. At some point, the gimmick of re-purposing other people's content will get old. With video and audio exploding and more appealing than text to newer generations, investigative reporting will have drill-down layers for the most interested, and offer a new, more nimble, facile presentation of in-depth journalism but in a multimedia, multilayered format. As broadband improves, entire documentaries will be seen on websites, as they already are now, but more so, with investigative...and as television and computer screens become one, well...anything is possible, which is the exciting part of this conversation.

IPS: What about issues like responsibility and anonymity on the web?

CL: Anonymity is a problem right now. As long as there is no accountability for content, it has no credibility, for me at least. But some bloggers are realising that standards and protocols of some sort in the information itself are not only important, they are essential. Lawsuits will start increasing, and online behaviour will discover responsibility.

IPS: The publisher of the New York Times Company, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., told an interviewer: "I really don't know whether we'll be printing The Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care." In what fundamental way will journalism be changed by the Internet and mobile and ubiquitous technology? What will the unintended consequences be?

CL: My biggest single worry is that journalism - especially investigative journalism -- will become further marginalised, like a rare book or unique culinary delicacy to be savoured by a very, select few, and written and actually practised the way Egyptologists study hieroglyphics. And the rest of the dumbed-down masses will be reading headlines on their mobile phones and thinking they are informed.

That, if it happens, will mean no independent check on government and corporate power, anywhere. No independent truth teller standing up to power, telling it like it is.

If that happens, look out, world.

article originally published at .

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