The Downie-Schudson report really nailed it in terms of the focus on certain types of reporting and being very clear-headed about reporting as opposed to numbers of outlets or content volume. That’s an important distinction and something we emphasized a lot in our report, too.

Then the Pew study of Baltimore was a very important study. [The study showed a marked lack of original reporting in local news and a prevalent tendency to reprint or repackage information that was already reported.] They did a content analysis that looked at the question: What is the underlying source of some of the reporting for these stories? It’s perhaps the most misunderstood thing about the modern media landscape—with the sense that we have this tremendous abundance, how could there be a shortage of anything?

It struck me that the report is a balance of optimism and pessimism, or at least a sobering acknowledgment of the challenges. But ultimately it concludes on an optimistic note—that should the suggested changes be adopted, this could be the best media system we’ve ever had. Are you ultimately more optimistic?

It’s sort of this conditional optimism—there’s a big “if” to the optimism. If we address this one area of concern, we will have the best media system we’ve ever had. If we don’t, we have really serious problems. That’s the weird thing about the message. It’s not like I’m conditionally optimistic because I think it’s all going to get better on it’s own. We actually have to pay attention to this and if we don’t, there are going to be severe consequences. But if we do, there are so many other things going for us right now, that you really could have the best of both worlds.

That’s a tough message. And government reports particularly tend to be one or the other. It’s like, “A Nation at Risk,” or… well, I guess there aren’t that many happy government reports. And there are evangelists on both sides of this argument. There are people who think that the market will solve everything and there are people who think it’s all going to hell. I just don’t agree with either of those things. I think the truth is a little more complex than that. This, A, makes it harder to appeal to those groups, and, B, just makes it harder to concisely convey that. It would be easier to have a wake-up call if you were just saying everything sucks, but everything doesn’t suck. It wouldn’t be true.

The second part of this interview will be published tomorrow.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.