First Read: Report Ignores Web’s Nimble Nature

Why not a Journalism Geek Squad? Or Report For America?

When it comes to news, the Web doesn’t work the way Michael Schudson and Len Downie suggest in their report. They present various entities in the new-media landscape as if they are destinations, like printed newspapers, that should be able to build and maintain definable audiences capable of attracting ad revenue, philanthropy, or government subsidy. But in fact, audience loyalty to news sites is minimal. At newspaper sites, for example, the average visitor spends barely one minute per day. Using search, aggregation sites, bookmarks, and RSS readers, most Web users assemble their own package of news from a shifting set of sources. This fractured environment suggests the need for networked solutions that allow content to break the bounds of individual Web sites while allowing publishers to share in the associated revenue no matter where their content is consumed.

The networked nature of the Web creates far more opportunities than problems for journalism, but most news sites have been slow to exploit them. Some still fail to embed hyperlinks in news stories, and most were slow to adopt social media and social networking, which are not even mentioned by the authors. Twitter and Facebook function as news access and discussion tools, but can also be important research tools in the practice of accountability journalism. Also missing from the report are such promising innovations as those emanating from the prolific “geek squad” at The New York Times, and the many new ways of delivering content, ranging from e-readers to the rumored Apple tablet.

All of which highlights that the Web is still in its infancy. Fifteen years into radio and television, the ultimate business models and key innovations that would make those media truly vibrant had not yet been developed. In the digital arena, innovation around news content creation as well as processing and delivery is happening at a furious pace. New ideas are being introduced constantly, with a huge nonstop discussion swirling around them.

From this whirlwind of ideas, both new and traditional, a new, sustainable ecosystem for journalism will emerge, but the solutions suggested by the authors are curiously limited to the traditional: tax policy, philanthropy, a bigger role for public broadcasting, more contributions from universities. In particular their suggestion to redirect some of the FCC’s money into a Fund for Local News—a kind of National Endowment for Journalism, complete with its own bureaucracy—is not well-suited to the fast-paced innovation needed for the new journalism, and creates all manner of opportunities for conflict and misuse. The kind of rational but slow and deliberate system by which funding is allocated to projects in health, education, and the arts is not likely to work well for funding journalism projects. Universities can be equally bureaucratic. FCC funding or university support for accountability journalism projects are not bad ideas, but the nature of the crisis calls for more nimble and effective structures as well.

I would throw into the mix:

* The Journalism Geek Squad. The authors do suggest that “more should be done” to make accessible and useful the massive amounts of public data generated by governmental entities and elsewhere, but they suggest no specific mechanism. The competence to find, navigate, extract, and analyze this data requires statistical and sometimes programming skills largely absent from newsrooms. This suggests an opportunity for intermediate organizations, perhaps university-based, that can train and manage journalist-geeks who have those skills.

* The News Content Exchange. The study notes collaborations between new and old media that are sharing content across platforms. This suggests there is room for a new kind of content exchange, similar to, but at an enterprise level, where stories and story ideas can be solicited and offered, bought and sold efficiently. Rather than ad hoc partnerships of two or more news entities agreeing to share content, news entities could join a broad umbrella network that tracks what is contributed and what is used—any partner could use content from any other—with an accounting system to keep tabs on maintaining equal exchanges. A network along these lines would encourage sharing, but would also encourage publishing and collaborative projects.

* Report for America. With Teach for America as a model, could the nation (or better yet, a well-heeled foundation) fund one-year, post-college fellowships for young reporters who might apprentice at mainstream or new media organizations with the only requirement that they produce works dealing with important civic issues?

Ultimately, in terms of public policy, inertia rules. It’s unlikely that massive public (or university) policy shifts to sustain journalism will take place; and even if some of our collective recommendations materialize, changes wrought by the many ongoing incremental innovations will have far more impact.

For more reactions to The Reconstruction of American Journalism, click here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Martin C. Langeveld spent thirty years in the daily newspaper business, thirteen as a publisher, working for a variety of New England papers. He is now a freelance marketing and strategic planning consultant based in Vernon, Vermont.