“The Reconstruction of American Journalism” is an extraordinary report on the present and future of our profession, written by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson, and commissioned by the Columbia Journalism School.
Their assignment was to take a comprehensive, clearheaded look at the enormous changes taking place in American journalism, to assess them, and to make recommendations for the future. Each of the authors is as deservedly well-known as anyone in the world at what he does: Downie stepped down last year after seventeen years as executive editor of The Washington Post, during which time the paper won twenty-five Pulitzer Prizes; Schudson, a MacArthur fellow, is a distinguished scholar of journalism and democracy, author of Discovering the News, The Good Citizen, Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press, and other books.
What is unusual about the report, aside from the breadth of the authors’ original research, is that it focuses resolutely on a particular function of the press: what it calls “accountability journalism.” This, as the report points out, was not a part of the Founders’ original conception of the press as reflected in the First Amendment, but it has come to be a vital part of democratic life in this country, especially in those places that have had daily newspapers profitable enough, with owners public-spirited enough, to maintain substantial news reporting staffs.
The Internet, as the report makes clear, has brought the days when privately owned newspapers could be the main bearers of this reporting function to an end. Almost all major American papers have seen their profitability, and their reporting resources, shrink greatly. The report does not envision newspapers disappearing, but it also does not regard restoring newspaper staffs to their former size as possible. It looks forward to a new, mostly digital, era of news production, in which newspapers will continue to have a leading role, but as part of a much larger cast of featured players. In Downie and Schudson’s words, “It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including printed newspapers. What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”