Schudson Talks Back

A response to CJR’s responders about “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”

Thanks to CJR and particularly to respondents Martin Langeveld, Alan Rusbridger, Jan Schaffer, and Paul Starr for their thoughtful comments on our report.

All seem to agree we have advanced the discussion a pace or two; all think, to different degrees, that we have some distance to go. We agree on both counts!

We find Martin Langeveld’s suggestions for “what is to be done” excellent—the “Journalism Geek Squad” and “Report for America” (we’re less convinced by the News Content Exchange). But Langeveld thinks we don’t understand how Web journalism works, because we are still presuming a world where audiences are loyal to particular news outlets—or news Web sites; he reads us as not really grasping just how different the new news ecosystem is.

We don’t think our assessment of the state of play today is off base. Television (network and cable) is still where millions of people get their news, and newspapers, for all of their woes, still serve millions every day. There were more than 1,400 (but less than 1,500) daily newspapers five years ago. There are still more than 1,400 daily newspapers, although a couple dozen have folded. Yes, there is more horizontal exchange of news than pre-Internet and pre-social media. But our focus is on how original news content is produced, not how news, once produced, circulates.

True, this very distinction is blurring, as is the line between journalists and their publics. This affords new opportunities for newsgathering in citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, and pro-am journalism of various designs, some of them highlighted in the report.

But our focus remains on professionals who get paid to gather the news. Paul Starr is right that we are aiming to strengthen the tradition of nonpartisan professionalism in journalism. Starr makes an important point, one we are happy to endorse, that there should be a new category of journalistic nonprofits free to engage in political advocacy (unlike other tax-exempt organizations).

He is also right that we are less worried than he is about the flow of watchdog journalism and daily news to the public. Where the work of Princeton’s Markus Prior work shows the increase in media options (especially with the rise of cable TV) has reduced popular attention to the network news, we are not yet persuaded that the result is that people know less. Princeton’s Matthew Baum finds that people learn a lot from “soft news” sources (like the topical humor on Leno or Letterman) and his work runs counter to what Prior’s work implies. We agree that, “when news diminishes, corruption increases”—a finding that Starr emphasized in his important essay in The New Republic last spring. But we are not so sure that anti-corruption effect is due to the large, relatively unified public brought together at the newspaper hearth—it may be because of the small “attentive public” that the newspaper reached. It also may be that a variety of competing online news organizations, with enough financial support, plus local news on public radio (if our recommendations were all marvelously to be adopted tomorrow), could provide the same pro-democracy anti-corruption effect.

Jan Schaffer wishes we had tried harder to reconstruct not funding models for journalism but the content of what journalism can and should provide. Here I plead only that the reconstruction and reinvention of journalism is happening all over the place in ways that she knows better than just about anybody else. She knows about most of the experiments we mention in the report, but I doubt that she’s right that “we all know” about most of them. I don’t think policy makers or most mainstream journalists have yet acknowledged just how vital is the change they represent. Our sense is that most educated citizens are barely aware of the online news organizations we focus on and that even those who do have not yet seen in them a viable model for the future of news.

We face, as Alan Rusbridger puts it, “some kind of emergency,” and we think that some of the differences the respondents have with us concerns characterizing that emergency, and identifying just how profound it may be. Other differences have to do with just how to name the key distinctive features of the emerging new journalistic scene. Rusbridger’s notion of mutualized news (cited in the report) seems a well-chosen word. Others have discussed more horizontal than vertical newsgathering and news dissemination, more interactivity in the process of reporting, and a thoroughly mixed blend of shoe-leather reporting, telephone reporting, Googling all day long, and the kind of database reporting made more and more possible by online resources.

You really can do first quality reporting in smaller news organizations with fewer reporters than you could have a decade ago. You can’t in any sustainable way do it without organizations that pay people to report. What impressed us is that there are so many interesting experiments going on that are trying to make such organizations work.

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Michael Schudson is a sociologist and historian of the news media and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His latest book, The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975, was published last month by Harvard University Press.