News reporting that holds accountable those with power and influence has been a vital part of American democratic life—especially in places with daily newspapers profitable enough, and with owners public-spirited enough, to maintain substantial reporting staffs. Accountability journalism is now at risk, along with the advertising-supported economic foundations of newspapers.
In a comprehensive report commissioned by the Columbia University Journalism School, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson argue that American society must now take collective responsibility for supporting news reporting—as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy, and government policy.
“The Reconstruction of American Journalism” describes the great potential of the emerging journalistic ecosystem, which combines in its landscape online local news sites; nonprofit local investigative reporting projects; community news services at nearby universities; pro-am newsgathering collaborations; outlet-to-outlet collaborations; and national and statewide nonprofit investigative reporting organizations. Financial support for news reporting, the report notes, now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers but also from foundations, philanthropists, universities, and citizen donors.
And yet for accountability journalism, in particular, existing funding structures are still quite fragile. Accountability journalism requires significant reporting resources with strong professional leadership and reliable financial support, the authors argue—and such support is something that the marketplace can no longer be expected to sufficiently supply. Rather than depending primarily on shrinking newspapers, communities should have a range of diverse sources of news reporting. Downie and Schudson suggest a number of public sources of support for such reporting:
— The Internal Revenue Service or Congress should clarify tax regulations to explicitly allow new or existing local news organizations to operate as nonprofit or low-profit entities, allowing them to receive tax-deductible donations, along with advertising revenue and other income.
— Philanthropists and foundations should substantially increase support for local news reporting — at both commercial and nonprofit organizations—to levels they provide for arts, cultural, and educational institutions.
— Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented, through action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations—reporting that too few of them do now.
— Universities and colleges should become institutional sources of local, state, and accountability news reporting, following the lead of pioneering journalism schools whose faculty and student journalists staff community news and investigative reporting Web sites.
— A national Fund for Local News should be created with fees the Federal Communications Commission collects from or could impose on telecom users, broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers. Grants should be made competitively by independent state Local News Fund Councils to local news organizations for innovations in local news reporting and ways to support it. The Fund must be insulated from political pressures.
— Governments, nonprofit organizations, and journalists should increase the accessibility and usefulness of public information collected by federal, state, and local governments, taking advantage of digital tools to analyze and use it for news reporting.
These are reasonable and achievable measures, Downie and Schudson write. They require only leadership in journalism, philanthropy, higher education, government, and the rest of society to seize this moment of challenging changes and new beginnings in the media to ensure the future of news reporting. It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium. What is paramount, however, is preserving independent, original, credible reporting—whether or not it is profitable.
The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.