Reasons to Believe

Journalism's search for a support system

There is a lot of death talk around journalism lately. A case in point that stuck in our craw was Michael Hirschorn’s recent Atlantic piece about The New York Times: the Gray Lady might expire, he predicted, by May. We doubt it. But more alarming, to us and others, was the article’s casual understatement of the meaning of such a loss if it occurred, as well as the wider loss of newspaper ability and ambition across the country, which is indeed occurring, and fast. “The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things,” Hirschorn writes. “And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy.” Tim McGuire, of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State, had this reaction in his blog: “Ya think?”

McGuire continued, “Hirschorn tossed off in one dismissive sentence the most crucial potential developments for journalism and democracy since the First Amendment.” He’s not that far off. As the historian Paul Starr pointed out in the March 4 New Republic, to lose newspapers is to change our political system, and not for the better.

CJR’s running total of journalists laid off or bought out since January 2007 was 11,250 by mid-February, and we surely missed some. Our fear is that America won’t realize what it has lost until the mainstream press is a ninety-pound weakling—online, on paper, on whatever. In the words of Joseph Pulitzer, at the start of a paragraph that sits on a brass plaque in the building where we work, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together….”

We see some faint reasons for hope. For one, even though the handcuffs of investor expectations and towering stacks of debt are all too real, and even though the challenges to the financial model that supports newsgathering are truly profound, those troubles have been conflated with the recession. Ad revenue didn’t fall off a cliff until the recession got under way. And the recession will end.
Second, even while newspapers in particular waited way too long to wrestle seriously with the Web, the smarter ones are doing so. More important, a mighty public appetite for serious reporting and analysis remains. The Times, whose death Hirschorn so blithely predicts, reaches an average of nearly twenty million unique visitors on the Web every month, and each visitor spends on average of more than a half an hour each day. Research by Steven S. Ross, editor of Broadband Properties (and the author of our Craigslist-didn’t-do-it piece on page 8), indicates that newspapers as a whole are gaining online readers far faster than they are losing print readers. Also, it seems obvious to us that, given the new administration and the savage economy, Americans are more interested in reporting than at any time since 9/11.

Finally, there is great and healthy innovation and ferment, both outside and inside the mainstream media, as journalists and engaged citizens collectively search for an economic support system for reporting. Connecting appetite and innovation to income will not be easy, but we don’t really have a choice. Smart people are on the job, and in this issue, we asked some of them to make their case, starting on page 22.

This is unusual in this space, but we’re in unusual times. Journalists are members of a tribe searching for a new valley to sustain it. CJR would like to be among the scouts for this journey, and we’re looking for help. We are marshalling our resources, online and in print, to advance the conversation about the innovation necessary for the survival of serious reporting. Our current goal is $15,000 toward that effort, money that we will try to leverage for additional support. If you are able to contribute, we are very grateful. Please do so here, or via a check to the Columbia Journalism Review, c/o CJR, Fund for Journalism’s Future, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. Contributions are tax deductible. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.