‘A National Information Utility’
Re: “A Media Policy for the Digital Age” by Steve Coll (CJR, November/December). Driving around Middle America for eleven months listening to the car radio all the time, I quickly learned that NPR was my only source for news and commentary. Private broadcasters have largely capitulated.
Yes, there are rapid news bulletins read off CNN, ABC, or Fox News wires, but that’s it. The main broadcast choices are religious, talk (including sports), country, and rock, with some classical and jazz thrown in.
That means NPR is, in effect, a national information utility, and one that needs to function at the highest level at all times. When you realize it is often also the only source for international news in regional media centers—with its reporters on the front lines of conflict—broad public support is essential. Three suggestions:
• Why one NPR? Fund, say, three public radio networks with federal contributions and let them experiment. Have them compete for private support on U.S. coverage—sharing the costly international news bureaus as a primary source.
• Rotate editorial control to regional stations for set periods. Washington becomes a powerful news bureau answering to, say, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Detroit, Minneapolis, or even smaller cities like Memphis, Spokane, or Fargo. That alone might make it politically easier to secure funding and elucidate the questions the national press doesn’t ask. If there was one message that came out of the election, it’s how tone-deaf the best journalists become in the confines of Washington and New York, creating perceived bias through story selection.
• Give special incentives for long-form reporting to anyone who wants to compete. Public Radio International’s This American Life series on the subprime crisis brought home the corruptness of Wall Street through individual voices in a way that no business publication could match. Confessions about boiler-room tactics and lying to borrowers were worthy of a jury. Mary Kay Magistad’s series on China’s innovation crisis for PRI brought a whole new dimension to whether the world’s second largest economy can be more than a factory. NPR’s series with ProPublica on traumatic brain injury changed Veterans Administration policy. I got it all over the car radio.
As Coll reminds, a lot can be done in a nonpartisan way. Start with winning support for public radio as no longer a choice but a necessity, then structure it to make it attractive to Americans in every part of the country, who by the way, are pretty good thinkers, too.
Former managing editor
Thanks to Steve Coll for taking the time to step back and take a big-picture look at the many ways our whole media-policy system is shaping journalism right now—and how we could rethink these systems to better serve journalism and democracy.
As we look for models and ideas, there is much we can learn from other countries. Our media ecosystem is as unique as our nation, and we don’t want to try to duplicate any one system, but there are still important lessons to learn and pieces we can explore to help foster innovation and protect journalism’s independence.
SaveTheNews.org, a project of the national media-policy group Free Press, will be releasing a major report on the policies and structure found in fourteen other democratic nations that help insulate journalists from the public funds that flow into supporting high-quality public media. You can see a summary of that research at http://www.scribd.com/doc/38710467/Crisis-of-Imagination-Summary.
Free Press and SaveTheNews.org
Thank you, Nicholas Spangler, for writing the definitive article on the experience of working for Demand Media (“In Demand,” CJR, November/December). It is excellent journalism. And what I mean by that is that it follows the discipline of verification. Spangler interviewed someone who is successful working for Demand, as well as trying it himself, to ensure that he had more than one person’s perspective. He did extensive research by doing the work, not just for one day, but over time. He then checked with a traditional editor to see whether she would accept what he had written as journalism. This is verification—the type of thing we are not seeing in “content farm” stories that people write from airports or doctors’ offices without experiencing what they’re writing about or talking to someone who has.
University Heights, Ohio
I worked for a few months last summer as a Demand copy editor. I very quickly felt like a piece-worker in a factory and wondered who was valued less, the article writers or the copy editors. I made the mistake of signing my name to comments on articles I returned to writers for corrections, a courtesy to which I felt the writers were entitled. It wasn’t long until one of the faceless “senior editors” contacted me to say that contact of that nature between authors and editors was prohibited. It was the most miserable couple of months of my career as a journalist, writer, and editor.
I’ve spent the past year and a half job-hunting and failing at freelancing. I resisted content mills on principle—and the apparently misguided sense that I was worth more. But poverty has made me cave. I started writing for Demand Studios a few weeks ago under a pseudonym. I, too, find I’m earning about $5 an hour, maybe less. I just can’t seem to do less than my best, even under these humiliating circumstances.
San Francisco, Calif.
I’ve written for Demand, and I have a long history in what I’ll call more socially acceptable writing ventures. On a good day working for Demand, I will make close to $45 an hour, significantly more than or at least comparable to my other writing and publishing jobs. In this economy, I can’t afford to let my writer’s ego get in the way of my basic needs to pay bills.
I write for Demand and I like it. Why? I get paid twice a week. Period. I’m a content writer, not a journalist. If I could write as good as Spangler, I wouldn’t do it either (really, he had me laughing out loud). It serves its purpose, though. Through the years, I’ve saved a whole lot of money doing repairs, etc., because some cool person shared their research, step by step. That’s not journalism, but there’s a market. So all of you real Journalists need not worry. Writing for Demand gives me a few extra bucks to buy your books and newspapers.
My dear Nick, it may well be that your future does not lie in journalism or even in activities that may be considered its cousins. That would be a shame, however, particularly given your clear desire to remain in this line of work and the sparkling talent you exhibited when we worked together at The Miami Herald. I relished your stories. And I was proud to have contributed one story idea from the copy desk (surely you will recall your delightful feature on the fainting goats?).
If you mean to continue in this profession amid the turmoil that has overtaken it and in defiance of what appears to be a grim future indeed, I guess you should brace yourself for more tribulations, including, perhaps, more of the soul-sucking work that you describe in your lovely essay, and press on. All the best, my friend.
Gilbert B. Dunkley
United Arab Emirates
A question after noting that your subtitle with “In Demand”—an article predicting a news mediocrity—read, “A week inside the future of journaism”: unintended irony or the subconscious tacit agreement of an overworked headline writer?
Grosse Pointe, Mich.
The editors respond: It was the latter, with several overworked copy readers also in agreement.
Re: “A Faustian Bargain: Slideshows are the scourge, and the savior, of online journalism” by Chadwick Matlin (CJR, November/December). Newspapers and magazines, which produce most of the content that is aggregated into slideshows by all of these websites, are laying off photojournalists at higher rates than writers at the same time as they are looking for more visuals. Sure, photo galleries are looked down upon, especially by executives without a visual bone in their bodies and writers who just don’t get that we live in the most visually literate society in the history of the world. The bottom line: people like photos. Instead of looking for ways to devalue this trend, we as an industry should be hiring more visual people—photographers, artists, photo editors, etc.—and putting them in management positions to help the industry improve its quality and visual content.
Move Over, J-School
Curtis Brainard accurately portrays the potential dark side of the discontinuance of the University of Colorado (CU) School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) in his article “Drop Out?” (CJR, November/December). However, as one who has attended all the public meetings, knows the key participants, and sits on the SJMC Advisory Board, I find this doomsday scenario to be unlikely.
Whatever happens, journalism will continue to be a vibrant program at CU. At the very least, a diminished but revitalized journalism program will be included in CU’s College of Arts and Sciences. The top recommendation of the Discontinuance Committee was for a brand-new interdisciplinary academic unit that “centers on teaching the core principles of journalism.” So, I believe it is most likely that CU will authorize the formation of a new unit, such as a College of Digital Media, to teach journalism along with information, technology, and entrepreneurship.
A lively debate is already occurring within the university community on how best to reconstruct journalism education in the digital age. I hope CJR will continue to weigh in on this critical issue.
In our November/December Research Report, “In ACORN’s Shadow,” by Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend, we misidentified Christopher Martin as John Martin. We apologize for the error.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.