Wanted: Less rhetoric, more critical thinking about 'The Reconstruction of American Journalism'

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 sitesCapitolSeattle.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.

(Stevens, by the way, gives Newsweek a well-deserved whack for its recent superficial take on the future of community journalism, which came to optimistic conclusions, but for the wrong reasons.)

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.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]


  1. Thanks to Tom for his insightful analysis of the Downie/Schudson report. Several folks have asked for my reaction to this document, and I’ve been Tweeting about it during the week. Here’s what I had to say on Twitter:

    Why would anyone look to newspaper execs for answers about future of news? They led the industry into this mess.

    Here’s how gov’t can help journalism: Increase salaries for schoolteachers. More readers = bigger mkt for news.

    Here’s y u can’t find profitable news sites that look like newspapers: because those sites *don’t* look like newspapers.

    As part-Native American, current talk from newspaper execs sounds like a 21st-century Ghost Dance: http://bit.ly/47UeFM

    Now, indulge me more than 140 characters a whack to explain further:

    Leonard Downie Jr. has served as one of the industry’s top newsmen. Michael Schudson is an outstanding scholar. But journalists have been publishing on the Internet for 15 years now. A generation of news managers and scholars has had more than a decade to confront the what should have been an obvious impending erosion of newspaper revenue due to online competition.

    That generation instead chose to look for ways to reinforce newspapers’ monopoly power over the access to and publication of the news, or to find new ways to fund existing news operations and procedures. (And, often, both.)

    That generation chose to ignore, marginalize or even demonize voices who argued that the news industry must change its procedures, in both editorial and business operations, to compete online. So a decade of innovation and market power was wasted, as news industry managers, abetted by academic indifference, chose instead to pine for their “old ways.”

    And now, when newspapers are closing and others have lost 90 percent of their value (or more), top news company managers are working their way through the stages of grief. We’ve had our decade of denial. Now we’re into the anger and bargaining, with those further down the payscale confronting depression.

    The zeal with which some managers are embracing already-discredited or unrealistic ideas (“Paywalls will save us!” “E-readers will save us!” “Bailouts will save us!”) reminds me of what I’ve read about the “Ghost Dance” movement among Native American tribes in the late 1800s. (Here’s a description.) Beaten and desperate, many American Indians then turned to the Ghost Dance with evangelical fervor, believing that dance, songs and magical shirts would protect them from the white man’s bullets.

    They didn’t, of course, and free native tribes succumbed to life on the reservation.

    The news organizations that prosper and serve the public interest in the 21st century will not look nor operate like the newspapers of the 20th. Those who create and lead these organizations will not be the same individuals who for years have been featured speakers at NAA at AEJMC conferences, or whose names impress the boards and tenured faculty at what have been the nation’s top j-schools.

    If the folks at Columbia and other j-schools want to charge their friends with writing reports about the future of journalism, go ahead. But if journalism schools really want to learn what will happen to this field in the years to come, they need to diversify the voices with which they have been engaging.

    Tomorrow does not belong to Downie or Schudson, however impressive their work has been in the past. It belongs people such as Rafat Ali, Adrian Holovaty, Markos Moulitsas, Howard Owens and Lisa Stone – a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, who ought to be the folks that institutions such as Columbia look to for guidance about the future of journalism.

  2. says:

    It’s interesting to watch this debate from the other side of the Atlantic. I am fascinated to see formerly free market US media people clinging to the raft of European-style welfarism. You don’t appear to want it for healthcare so why for media?
    I agree that the report is looking for a fix rather than addressing fundamentals.
    For example, ask What value does journalism really offer? I think it can offer lots, but not in its current institutions or production processes. We have to accept that this industry is going to get hollowed out, not just in commercial capacity, but in terms of its social and economic role.
    I admire much of Columbia’s work – I am jealous of their resource and intelligence – but to call for ‘reconstruction’ makes it sound like the media is a building that merely needs repair when in fact the inhabitants have moved somewhere else entirely.
    Charlie Beckett
    (Polis, London School of Economics)

  3. Hear, hear on this post and Robert Niles’ insightful comment.

    I had expected more from the Columbia report given the buildup. Instead, it seemed to be mostly a summary of what anyone following the ceaseless hand-wringing would know. And rather than try to create a product that people want and seek innovative business models, the authors think the answer is to go begging for handouts.

    There was a lot of talk in the report about saving “newsrooms.” But I saw no insights or apparent work to understand what audiences actually want from those newsrooms.

  4. Here’s my critical thinking in three parts:
    Part I – Solving an economic crisis requires collaboration among Journalists, Marketing, Technology, and Finance. http://bit.ly/4rLVMN
    Part II – If my hypothetical analysis of the marketing factors affecting observations by CJR analysis are correct, then journalism isn’t in the news business but the opinion business. http://bit.ly/5JftZ
    Part III – In the spirit of collaboration, we’ve volunteered to build a database of new journo experiments as suggested by C.W. Anderson and have asked for a Journalism professor to volunteer to recruit marketing, tech, and financial professors to form a collaborative panel to analyze for recommendations. http://bit.ly/4gDGAL

  5. Tom Grubisich says:

    From my perch as a consulting Web editor at the World Bank, I

  6. says:

    As someone who started in this racket when they were still pouring hot lead, I think I have some perspective…newspapers (dead trees), are done. The print model will, in time go the way of the internal combustion engine and coal fired power plants. We don’t need another study to understand that. What this profession could use is a clear voice on how we serve those who count on us…BETTER.
    Please brothers and sisters, the future is here and, like all voyages into unknown territory, it’s gonna be a blast…and very unpredictable.