First Read: Journalism Minus its Old Public

Even if funds can be found, journalism's reach is narrowing

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson provide a superb survey of the initiatives in progress to sustain independent reporting, and their recommendations generally deserve support. But at the same time, they understate the changes taking place in the news and its public, and consequently underestimate the difficulties that American democracy faces.

The challenge that the Internet poses is not just that it is destroying the financial base of reporting; it is also dismembering the public that the press has long had. Online, anyone interested in sports, finance, recipes, crossword puzzles, job opportunities, and so on can go to specialized sites that are often superior to the comparable sections of their local newspaper. But unlike a newspaper, the sites do not expose them, even minimally, to news about their community or the world.

Journalism—or at least some parts of it—may find new sources of financing. It may be reconstructed in imaginative ways. But it is unlikely to have the broad public reach it once had.

The remaining public for journalism will also change in ways that Downie and Schudson have not taken into account. As the political scientist Markus Prior has shown, when the rise in TV channels deprived the networks of a captive audience for the evening news, many viewers abandoned the news altogether for entertainment, while a smaller number took advantage of cable channels to watch more news than before. The more media choice people had, the more the audience for news depended on their level of political interest. And the most interested have been the most partisan. As Walter Cronkite prospered in the old environment, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann thrive in the new one.

As the diminished public for journalism becomes more partisan, journalism itself is likely to shift further in that direction. That tendency is already apparent online, as it is in cable. And so there is a disconnect between the recommendations that Downie and Schudson offer, which reflect a tradition of nonpartisan professionalism, and the pressures of the emerging environment. Not only is the audience for news likely to become more partisan; so is the universe of potential donors to nonprofit journalism.

Insofar as the government provides direct support for journalism (as in public media), there will have to be a requirement for nonpartisanship and ideological balance. But there is no reason to hamstring private nonprofit media in that respect. As journalism in northern Europe shows, partisanship can be compatible with high levels of professionalism.

Moreover, if newspapers need to shift to nonprofit status to survive, they should not be required to sacrifice any of the rights of a free press—including the freedom to endorse political candidates. In early American history, when the federal government subsidized newspapers through postal rates, it did not make those subsidies conditional on nonpartisanship. Similarly, today, to avoid any loss of freedom of the press, Congress could create a new category of journalistic nonprofits that would be exempt from the limitations on political advocacy that apply to other tax-exempt organizations.

I may be more optimistic than Downie and Schudson about the possibilities for reconciling partisanship and professionalism, but I am distinctly less optimistic about the immediate future of the news, particularly at the state and local level.

Newspapers are surviving on an aging readership that buys a paper out of habit, and they are facing a catastrophic loss of readers among young adults. Despite those problems, the national media, particularly the elite press, will probably be able to assemble a public of sufficient size on a variety of platforms to generate the revenue to support a substantial level of reporting. But there is little prospect of this happening dependably at the local and state level.

What’s at risk is not just watchdog journalism but the flow of ordinary news to the public. As my colleagues Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido show in their study of the impact of the closing of The Cincinnati Post, the loss of regular coverage of local communities reduces voter turnout and the likelihood that challengers can unseat political incumbents. Other studies suggest that when news diminishes, corruption increases. The political system becomes sclerotic and unresponsive.

The kinds of initiatives that Downie and Schudson highlight can accomplish a great deal. Still, even with additional financial support, journalism is likely to become more of a specialized interest, with a narrower reach and little presence in many communities, especially those with low incomes. In this new environment, there is an increased potential for deepening rot at the lower levels of the federal system. Like every other American, I love sunny forecasts and stories of enterprise and renewal. But as wonderful as many new initiatives are, they confront deeper forces that we had better acknowledge if we are to have any chance of overcoming them.

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Paul Starr is Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and co-editor of The American Prospect.