Monday, February 8, 2010

Preserving American Journalism

On Friday, I attended an event co-sponsored by Fordham's Donald McGannon Communication Research Center and the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education.

At the event, authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney spoke about their recently published book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that will Begin the World Again.

Nichols spoke first about the current degeneration of the media, using mind-boggling statistics to emphasize that “journalism is in a dark place.” Here is a sample of those stats: over 1,000 journalists get laid off each month, newspapers now contain 73 percent fewer stories than they did in 1990, 85 percent of those stories are based off of press releases and there are now four PR people for every one journalist in the country.

McChesney then spoke about the solutions to this crisis he and Nichols have come up with that they outline in their book. Their main solution is for journalism to return to its original operating mode- as a subsidy
of the federal government, the way it operated until the late 1800s. He explained that journalism must be looked at as a public good, an economic term for things that are mandatory and crucial for society that cannot be supported by the market. For over 100 years, advertising allowed journalism to function in the market as a commercially viable industry but because of the current economic landscape, they think it must return under the umbrella of the government and be publicly funded.

From their research, the authors learned that many other democratic countries presently use this model of press subsidies, in which the government channels funding to newspapers but does not control any editorial or coverage decisions.

McChesney and Nichols also support the formation of an AmeriCorps for young journalists, a program that would give interested media students a way to enter the field and learn by working in the industry hands-on in areas that have lost newspapers and are desperate for community coverage.

I have my reservations about their subsidy solution for censorship and editorial independence issues, but love the idea of an AmeriCorps for media students. I can't wait to read the book to see if they sell me on the federal subsidy idea.

In the context of American Studies, both authors often diverted from describing the crisis and solutions to it to discuss the important role journalism plays in an effective democracy. They described how even though the founding fathers all hated the journalists of the era (debunking Jefferson's famous quote about him choosing newspapers over government) they truly believed it was crucial that a diverse, challenging, skeptical and dissenting body exist to keep American society in order. I obviously agree and hope that other media scholars build on the research of these authors to find a viable solution to the financial and content issues newspapers are facing.

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