Schudson on The Fate of Journalism

CJR contributing editor Scott Sherman has a thoughtful interview with Michael Schudson up at The Common Review. Schudson, as you undoubtedly know, teaches at Columbia; with Leonard Downie, Jr., he is the co-author of a recent report titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”. In the interview, Sherman and Schudson use the report as a departure point for a long and literate conversation on journalism and the public sphere. Here’s an excerpt:

SHERMAN: As you know, Evan Smith, the former editor of Texas Monthly, has created a Web-based news site called the Texas Tribune. Smith has twelve or so reporters and money from foundations and wealthy investors. For me, the beauty of the old-fashioned newspaper is that, while somebody might pick it up for sports or movie listings, they might, at the same time, also discover a story about municipal corruption. Is a site like Texas Tribune, which is one website among millions, destined to be read by the 5 percent of citizens that are already passionately engaged by politics? Is it consciously aimed at a “civic elite”?

SCHUDSON: I don’t know in the case of the Texas Tribune, because I haven’t talked to anyone there, but it seems some of the new sites like this are committed to reporting on what they think is important civic news. And they want to get it out, and they want to get it out to as many people as possible. My earlier example of the Voice of San Diego is not self-consciously elite oriented. Quite the contrary. They’re doing their best to go beyond their own relatively small and select readership; thus they have partnerships with commercial television and with San Diego Public Radio. Their stories get out to a much broader audience. Personally, I believe you can do a lot by reaching civic elites, which political scientists used to call the “attentive public.” Things move from them to others, or they, the civic elite, can take political action or be a voice of dissent. That tends to generate bigger news that then reaches a wider audience.

That’s not a bad thing. I think that’s mostly how things happen in most democracies past and present. Elite publications are important; small publications are important. How many people read Ralph Nader in the early 1960s when he wrote in The Nation on safety problems with our major American cars? Very few. But General Motors read it, and they started spying on him. He was able to sue them for invasion of privacy.

Then he published it as a book: Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). Lots of people read that book. How is it that the several million people who listen to Jon Stewart or Jay Leno get the jokes if they haven’t read the New York Times, if they haven’t been following the news? Somehow or other, they’re following it enough, however mediated that may be, to get the joke. That whole process of how news moves from the details of who’s on which side of the health care debate and how does the House bill differ from the Senate bill—somehow that information circulates and stews, first in a small circle and then moving out into a larger circle.

The whole thing is worth a read.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.