The new report “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson is one more example of what what’s wrong with the debate about the future of journalism. The Columbia Journalism School-sponsored report shovels out overviews, conclusions and recommendations by the pound, but with barely a few grams’ worth of critical thinking. Jan Schaffer, in her reaction to Downie and Schudson, said it best: “Darts for the mile-high, inch-deep reportage.” Schaffer, who is executive director of American University’s J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism and Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter and business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, zeroes in on the report’s fatal weakness:
“If we really want to reconstruct American journalism, we need to look at more than the supply side; we need to explore the demand side, too. We need to start paying attention to the trail of clues in the new media ecosystem and follow those ‘breadcrumbs.’ What ailing industry would look for a fix that only thinks of ‘us,’ the news suppliers, and not ‘them,’ the news consumers? I don’t hear from any of those consumers in this report.”
Alan D. Mutter, whose Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, provides a good share of the small amount of rigorous, economic-centered thinking that’s gone into the journalism crisis, also gave a mostly scathing review to “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.”
Downie and Schudson come to their drastic recommendation of a “National Fund for Local News” using the kind of sleeves-rolled-up but shallow analysis that typically informs newspaper editorials on big issues (e.g., health care reform and the U.S. role in Afghanistan) A typical sentence from the report: “With appropriate safeguards, a Fund for Local News would play a significant role in the reconstruction of American journalism.” What are “appropriate” safeguards? What are the con’s as well as the pro’s of letting the federal government, through funding decisions that are made by appointed “national boards” and “state councils,” “play a significant role in the reconstruction of American journalism”?
Downie and Schudson focus, appropriately, on the threat of continued editorial staff downsizing to journalism’s “‘accountability reporting that often comes out of beat coverage and targets those who have power and influence in our lives—not only governmental bodies, but businesses and educational and cultural institutions.’” But creating a spider-web-like network of grant-dispensing boards sets the stage for all kinds of abuses that, ironically, would provide fodder for accountability reporting.
Missing from the Downie-Schudson report are the basic elements of critical thinking:
- Digging for causes instead of reacting to symptoms.
- Measuring as well as marshaling evidence.
- Recognizing all the stakeholders.
- Asking “why” questions.
- Testing conclusions and recommendations.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hammer the Downie-Schudson report too hard. It’s symptomatic of what passes for analysis of the crisis in American journalism. We get too much rhetoric. The rhetoric is often well phrased – after all, it’s usually written by journalists – but we don’t need more rhetoric, however polished it may be. What we need is more case-method and other critical examination. Journalist/teacher/consultant Jane Stevens pointed the way with her studies of three community sites – CapitolSeattle.com, QuincyNews.org and WestSeattleBlog.com. Stevens and her co-author Mark Poepsel, a University of Missouri School of Journalism PhD candidate, take a close look at what the sites are doing on the journalistic, community and revenue fronts. The studies, if they are expanded to other websites, may lead to a flexible business model that can be tailored to work in a variety of communities – without federal money being doled out by national and state boards packed with patronage appointees.
Maybe the Downie-Schudson report will provoke enough tough reactions – on top of Schaffer’s and Mutter’s – that, cumulatively, will prod journalism’s practitioners and thinkers finally to start thinking critically about a crisis that won’t be solved with rhetoric, no matter how elegantly and urgently it’s framed.