Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Mon 25 Jul 11 13:32
Great point, Peter. I was going to mention that in the previous post -- part of news orgs being financially sustainable is having the institutional backing to absorb huge legal fees (as well as travel costs, health insurance and other benefits, etc.) that comes with the territory of hard-hitting investigative reporting. It does seem that too often there's too much emphasis placed on the technology of the delivery devices and not enough focus on the necessary institutional factors. And I couldn't agree more about emphasizing how journalism produces information that should be treated as a "public good." Public goods are rarely sufficietntly supported by market relationships - a kind of market failure - and therefore need to be subsidized. I also agree that it will take spectacular failure - perhaps a major daily paper going under (in a one-newspaper-town) - before it will be politically feasible to make the case for reinvesting in public broadcasting. Ideally this also would include reinventing public broadcasting as public media (to include not just PBS and NPR but community radio and other independent news orgs using multiple media platforms, including digital media).
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 25 Jul 11 14:54
A lot of good, new and innovative things being done here in Phoenix, especially at the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU: http://cronkite.asu.edu/
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 25 Jul 11 17:13
speaking of new ideas, here's one today from the Knight-Mozilla learning lab: http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2011/07/prototypes-visualizations-take-shape-in-kni ght-mozilla-learning-lab204.html
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 25 Jul 11 17:23
And from the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, winners of the Knight News Challenge: http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2011/06/knight-announces-2011-news-challenge-winner s172.html
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Mon 25 Jul 11 17:59
Thought I would take this pause to post links applicable to the conversation so far...last one from Clay Shirky, Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2011/07/we-need-the-new-news-environment-to-be-ch aotic/
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Mon 25 Jul 11 19:00
Just a note to our off-WELL readers. If you want to post a comment or question, just email your post to firstname.lastname@example.org, just put Will the Last Reporter . . . in your subject line.
Angie (coiro) Mon 25 Jul 11 21:55
With the references to public media here and in the book, I'd like to hear about its polar opposite: the for-profit broadcasting and news entities. I'm particularly thinking of last week's dismissal of Cenk Uygur from MSNBC, and the story he had to tell in its wake: <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/21/cenk-uygur-msnbc-leaving_n_905415.htm l> There was a time when the production of news was considered a public service performed by a station or network, and so-so ratings were good enough. Now it's all down to ratings. Our primary sources of news are compromised by the need to bring in the bucks. So our "journalists", to touch back on that last question, are: Nancy Grace. Al Sharpton. Bill O'Reilly. Where do the big news/media conglomerates fit in to this discussion, Victor? Problem, potential solution, some mongrel of the two? And what of the fact that these are the guys with the biggest pockets?
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Tue 26 Jul 11 08:07
Maybe I can sneak in a response to Clay Shirky's piece posted above (#30) and especially in the book. The piece in the book concludes, "No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need." The answer to our journalistic problems, he writes earlier, "could be some nineteen-year-old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won't recognize as vital until a decade hence." OK. Maybe. But is this a serious approach to a vital public good? Would we approach national security (another public good) this way? Maybe a 19-year-old out there somewhere will solve the problem? Also, it's a little irksome that Shirky dispatches with a public option in one sentence by noting that it's "politically fraught." It feels like mystification to say that we don't yet know to provide for good journalism when a) every other industrialized democracy seems to manage, and b) public support was massive and politically acceptable in earlier periods of U.S. history. Shirky also dismisses postal rate subsidies as if they were negligible. Steve Coll has noted that a spectrum tax today could perform a similar service. I agree with a lot of Shirky's analysis but don't love the defeatist political assumption. It's exactly the kind of resignation conservatives dream about. Victor, can "politically fraught" sometimes means "where the real action is"?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Tue 26 Jul 11 09:58
Ted links to a number of interesting experiments above. At least two of our book contributors are associated with these projects: Len Downie, on faculty at ASU's j-school, and Clay Shirky. I see these experiments as promising developments, but I'm sometimes disheartened by what seems like an over-emphasis on how new technologies will save us, and an under-emphasis on more structural, policy-oriented approaches. While Len Downie, in the essay in our book that he co-authored with Michael Schudson, has proposed a number of policy approaches (more funding for public media and other subsidies, tax code revisions, etc.), Shirky is an example of someone who might be seen as a "technological determinist" -- the fancy academic term for someone who sees technology as the primary driver for changes in society. This gets at Peter's observation (#33) above - with which I totally agree (McChesney and I deliberately sought out views for our book that we did not agree with in order to represent different positions within the future of journalism debate). Shirky suggests that we're in a moment of technological revolution, and during such moments things get broken and people tend to freak out until new things replace the old things (I'm oversimplifying here, but not by much). Even though Shirky invokes a lot of history, this smacks of an ahistorical view of how major social infrastructures like information systems develop. The Internet, for example, did not just happen. It was heavily subsidized by government, especially through the military and through research universities. As Peter mentioned, various contributors to our book show that both the international record and the United States' own historical record demonstrate that government can and should play an important role in sustaining a vibrant press system. What's more, when a major social problem emerges, we do not just sit back and let the magic of the market and new technology run its course. We intervene via policy to try to encourage the best possible outcome. This is why the journalism crisis is at base a policy problem. (Many of the contributors to our book arrive at this conclusion one way or another). So, to get back to Peter's provocative question--I agree that Shirky's approach is not a serious treatment of a vital public good; it's ahistorical, apolitical, and amounts to a thinly-veiled libertarian narrative that there's no legitimate role for government intervention. "Politically fraught" should also mean "subject to debate," and we should be having serious debate about journalism's future, not resigning ourselves to vague technological promises and market failure.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Tue 26 Jul 11 10:38
Responding to Angie's point above (#32): I watched Cenk's public statement about his dismissal a few days ago and, without knowing all of the particulars, I was reminded of Phil Donahue's experiences as an MSNBC host (before it rebranded itself as a liberal alternative) when he was told to tone down his anti-war views. I think the Cenk episode brings to light at least two limitations endemic to most commercial media: an over-reliance on official sources and an aversion to anything overly controversial (in terms of political positions - public scandal is of course irresistible for commercial media). In order to appear objective, commercial media need to be able to have access to and be able to quote from elites within the two major political parties. These elite positions usually define the parameters of debate and commercial media rarely stray beyond these bounds. Based on Cenk's version of events, it sounds like he ran up against these constraints. As we discussed earlier, some of these norms might be weakening -- especially as media become more niche-oriented and therefore more partisan (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) -- but these media are still profit-driven and therefore obsessed with ratings. And this all is transpiring within a deregulatory context where there are increasingly fewer public interest safeguards (media ownership restrictions, programming guidelines like the Fairness Doctrine) that attempted to ensure a healthy public discourse. To address the last part of Angie's question -- having so much of our news discourse given over to these big personality commentators and other talk show formats is primarily dictated by profit motives: it is inherently dramatic, which attracts the eyeballs that advertisers pay for, and it is ultimately cheaper than actually doing real news (dependent on teams of investigative reporters, foreign news bureaus, etc.). That it's being conducted by huge media conglomerates means that commercial pressures will be only greater, and there is even less incentive to cover local issues of import to diverse communities. Ideally we would design policies to encourage non- or low-profit news entities that were responsive to local community issues as well as international news coverage.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 26 Jul 11 12:27
#34 Something you said rang a bell in me about two other things I'd like you to discuss that run alongside all this new technology and platforming: 1) Journalism as a craft -- it doesn't happen overnight, and the skills required to be a good journalist, while aided by current technologies and medias still have to be developed outside them, and 2) Journalism as a service to the public -- from the range of a Walter Cronkite style of presenting the facts ("and that's the way it is") to a mature reflection on trends and events (more of the Edward R. Murrow school of thought and commentary that engages the public in dialog). It seems like these are getting lost, or at least not as well emphasized it the transitions taking place. Thoughts and comments?
Angie (coiro) Tue 26 Jul 11 20:45
And I'll get in line behind Ted with a follow-up question, on the idea of public funding. Agree with you here, Victor: >>Even though Shirky invokes a lot of history, this smacks of an ahistorical view of how major social infrastructures like information systems develop. The Internet, for example, did not just happen. It was heavily subsidized by government, especially through the military and through research universities. << I find myself wondering if the fledgling internet could get funded today. We have the economic crisis, obviously. But perhaps longer-lasting than that is a complete breakdown of the concept of a shared good. In large part due to conservative posturing (and the right's superb skills at controlling the public dialogue), "government" is seen as not by us, or of us, but against us. And "the media" (whatever that means in various minds) has been effectively demonized as well. The idea of tax money funneled via the government ("them") to the "lamestream media" - oh, my. We think we've seen a polarized dialogue already, wait til that one hits the burner. So while the concept of publicly-funded media has great merit, how in the world could it happen today?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Wed 27 Jul 11 09:53
Ted, those are both great points. As far as journalism as a craft goes, it's a thorny question because professionalism is often equated with elitism or paternalism (i.e. only educated, often white, people can decide what's news and how it should be told to the rest of us). At the same time, though, there are some professional norms that we may not want to throw out (like being fact-based) and there are many journalistic techniques that are not intuitive but must be learned, which cuts against the idea that anyone can be a journalist. My view is that we can still have journalism treated as a craft, but if we change the institutional structures (i.e. transition from for-profit to nonprofit models), over time journalistic cultures will also change, and mostly for the better. This would include returning to more of a public service tradition of journalism. News orgs would be far less obsessed with ratings and with racing toward the lowest common denominator if they were not fixated on their profit margins. Murrow and Cronkite were both coming from for-profit media, of course (and the media system of that time was also still very flawed even if we're inclined to romanticize it), but the high profit expectations/calculations were different then, and the threat of government regulation was also more real.
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Wed 27 Jul 11 10:29
Angie, in your above post (37) you've put your finger on the core problem, which is that clear thinking and substantial evidence points to the justification for significant public subsidies for a public media system. But politically this is often assumed to be a non-starter. Indeed, the idea of government supporting the press strikes many as downright un-American. It's seen as a dangerous measure that will send us on the inevitable path toward a dystopian, totalitarian society rather than strengthen journalism, freedom and self-government. This is a recurring refrain in our national discourse and has become so deeply ingrained in American political consciousness that it requires no evidence to be asserted categorically and thus end all further debate. Yet when this claim is actually examined, the evidence points us in a very different direction. One of the contributors to our book, my NYU colleague Rod Benson, has done extensive comparative research and has gleaned from other existing comparative studies of other democratic nations to conclude that public media -- that is, media outlets that are publicly subsidized -- are often times *more* critical of their governments compared to privately-owned, commercial news entities. There are also studies that suggest at least correlation between healthy public media systems and how informed people are. According to Britains highly respected The Economist magazine, which produces an annual Democracy Index, the top four most democratic nations on the list - Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden -- are among the top seven per capita press subsidizers in the world. The U.S. ranks 17th, and all 16 nations in front of the United States have generally much larger subsidies of journalism. A final point: we should also not assume that what political elites say is politically feasible accurately reflects public opinion -- in fact, there is often a major disconnect -- and some polls suggest that is the case with regards to subsidizing public media. To cite one recent example of general attitudes toward subsidizing public media: a CNN poll found that a majority of those interviewed tend to dramatically over-estimate how much of the U.S. budget goes toward funding public broadcastingnearly a whopping $178 billion instead of the actual $430 million per yearand yet a majority of those polled believed that such over-inflated expenditures should be maintained or even increased (!) The impact that tea partiers and their ilk have had on our political discourse is daunting, but perhaps advocating for greater public subsidies for media is not as doomed as we might expect. And maybe it's a political fight worth having.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 27 Jul 11 16:25
As it happens 'objectivism' and ethics came up in a PBS Media post from our own Walter Cronkite school of journalism today; http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2011/07/rethinking-journalism-ethics-objectivity -in-the-age-of-social-media208.html Not so sure I agree....I get that new media platforms require new thinking, but I don't think Aristotle's view has changed much with regard to ethics.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 27 Jul 11 16:27
Alongside Angie's point about subsidizing public media and government funding, would you talk a bit about the Corporatization of Media problem and the power their monies have over the industry? How much pressure for the advertising dollar is exerted on what we imagine as fair reporting...are we always going to be seeing the 'talking heads' read the police blotter and report the weather 5 times during a "newscast"?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Thu 28 Jul 11 06:55
Ted, I agree that our sense of journalistic ethics should not be radically different even if the technological landscape has changed. The ethical debate that we *should* be having is around the question of what is the role of media in a democratic society, and what should we as a society be doing to make sure that media perform that role. I do think "objectivity" should be re-evaluated -- this norm emerged at the dawn of the 20th century largely as an effort to compensate for an overly commercialized media system (there had been a public backlash against "yellow journalism," and by the 30s and 40s there was even a viable threat that the government was going to intervene against some of print media's excesses). Not only is it an unattainable ideal, it often treats complex issues as having only two official sides, and encourages a false equivalence (the public debate on climate change is a great example) of he said/she said stenography. The corporatization of media is really just a larger and meaner permutation of this commercial logic that drives for-profit news. It's commercialism on steroids. We see it most clearly expressed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp empire where the profit motive trumps everything else. Cheaply produced formats like talk shows and reality tv replace programs that are more costly (like actual news produced by journalists). The aim is to entertain not inform. Another important consequence is that concentrated media power translates into significant political power -- not just in the ability to shape the national discourse on key policies, but also in lobbying for beneficial policies. Media corporations maintain legions of lobbyists who pressure law and policy makers to do their bidding, like loosen media ownership restrictions. Also, campaign contributions: Leading up to the 2010 elections, News Corporation gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association and another $1 mil to the Chamber of Commerce. So these are just a few of the problems that emerge with the ongoing corporatization of media.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Thu 28 Jul 11 09:12
Victor, I was glad to see the essay by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson in your book, especially since Downie was a key player at a major newspaper. (Most of the other contributors are professors or journalists at left-of-center outlets like The Nation.) As you say, Downie is open to the "public option" approach, as is Steve Coll, the former managing editor at The Washington Post. But in my conversations with working journalists, many seem uneasy in principle with that kind of funding. They think the government will inevitably use that financial leverage to discourage critical stories. You've already noted that the evidence from other countries doesn't support that suspicion, but I don't see how that option will get the hearing it deserves if the journalists themselves don't see its advantages. Do you get the same kind of skepticism from working journalists? Or something else perhaps?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Thu 28 Jul 11 14:34
Peter, you're absolutely right - a terrible irony is that those who stand to lose most - journalists themselves - are often the most skeptical toward the potential of government support. David Simon's essay in our book is a great example. He describes what is being lost with the erosion of professional journalism - and critiques the flaws in assuming that blogs will save the day - better than anyone. But he then sees salvation in pay walls (online subscription models) instead of considering a policy approach. Even many liberal journalists become libertarian when it comes to the notion of subsiding the press. I do think some journalists and former journalists are gradually coming around to the idea that government can help support journalism without controlling it. Len Downie and Steve Coll, as you note, are great examples, but there are others who at least see a strengthened public media system as part of the answer to the journalism crisis - like Alberto Ibarguen, currently president of the Knight Foundation and formerly the publisher of the Miami Herald. When I speak publicly about this approach I normally find journalists in the audience who agree that government support should be in the mix, or are at least visibly warming up to it. I should mention that the newspaper guild has also been an important member in the coalition that is forming around this reformist approach. But it will probably take more time - and more jobs to disappear - before we can undo the indoctrination that prevents many journalists from embracing what very well might be their last best hope: public subsidies.
Angie (coiro) Sat 30 Jul 11 01:36
There's so much more in the book to talk about, but let me stay with this for just a few moments longer: Frank Blethen of the Seattle Times cites the "rapacious capitalists", the Wall Street absentee owners who've devastated print press by wringing every conceivable cent out of it, without investing in quality or good journalism. He goes on to make the case for public funding, as we're discussing here. Here's the gorilla in the corner: how to get from A to B. What would motivate the owners of the most influential traditional media outlets (who are quickly investing in new media as well) to give up the power of private control? We've touched on the fears of government controlling messages and access. The flip side of that is the cost to private owners should the government be more involved in sustaining media.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 30 Jul 11 05:18
Nice link for citizen journalists, Mobile Media Toolkit: http://www.mobilemediatoolkit.org/
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Sat 30 Jul 11 06:50
Excellent question, Angie. It will not be easy to incentivize private owners to give up control, but there are a few potential approaches. Policies that help transition failing commercial models of the press by removing or minimizing market pressures on news media fall into two categories, short-term and long-term. In considering the short-term, hopefully we can assume that as news media are increasingly unprofitable, it will be easier to convince private owners (who may be already looking for a way out) to adjust to an officially non- or low-profit model. One strategy in transitioning faltering commercial entities into self-sustaining non- or low-profit news organizations entails the decidedly unsexy realm of tax law. These laws can be tweaked -- or in some cases, merely communicated to the right players -- to make it easier for news orgs to qualify as nonprofits (501c3) or low-profits (L3C). Another potential approach is through the bankruptcy process to make it easier for newspapers to become community-owned. Other subsidy approaches that would not necessarily displace private owners have been proposed by our book contributors. These include vouchers for all taxpayers to allocate toward media of their choice (Bob McChesney and John Nichols), internet news vouchers (Bruce Ackerman), and direct government subsidies toward journalists' salaries (the late Ed Baker). For longer term fixes, we would not necessarily have to incentivize private owners but instead build upon already-existing public media. For more than 40 years, the United States has supported a successful, if grossly underfunded and sometimes flawed, public broadcasting system. To bolster this existing infrastructure, in addition to increasing its resources, funding for public media should be both guaranteed over the long term and carefully shielded from political pressures. This will require removing it from the congressional appropriation process and instead establishing a permanent trust, perhaps supported by spectrum fees paid by commercial operators, or something equivalent to the universal service fund that is added to monthly phone bills. I think we could dare to hope that as this public media system began to flourish, over time it would replace the journalism now funded by private capital.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 30 Jul 11 07:08
The next big problem for the news industry: Journalists abandon print: http://www.simplyzesty.com/journalism/the-next-big-problem-for-the-news-indust ry-journalists-abandon-print/ I don't see this happening, hopefully, but could be wrong. Victor, any comments?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 1 Aug 11 04:52
What do you think about efforts such as conservative think tanks funding conservative 'news' websites, and people like O'Keefe and Breitbart? Are they doing journalism? How much more of this will we be seeing?
Victor Pickard (victorpickard) Mon 1 Aug 11 07:30
Ted, I think that the "dead tree" version of print news is not long for this world, though it may be a long, slow death. As is well lamented, fewer and fewer people are subscribing to the paper version of news papers. Even though more people are reading news now than ever before, given the economics (most revenue is still generated by the paper-based ads, and digital ads will likely never come close to generating as much revenue), fewer people will be able to make a living at doing journalism. So unless we find a radically new model, this will lead journalists to abandon print (and therefore journalism altogether).
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