Among those who care about serious journalism, some are counting on an economic comeback that will bring sufficient media advertising back to newspapers and Web sites to support quality reporting; others bet on the evolution of pay walls and a public that will change course and learn to buy news content; still others put their money on other kinds of news innovation, in which new kinds of outlets find ways to sustain themselves once the philanthropists are tapped out or move on.
But what if none of these things work? What is left?
Robert W. McChesney is one of those who argue that what is left is public policy and public funding that recognizes and sustains reporting as a public good. McChesney teaches in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the co-author, with John Nichols, of The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.
Today, he will present an argument and strategy for a media policy in a speech to the Federal Trade Commission, at an FTC workshop on media policy. Here’s a preview of the speech:
Rejuvenating American Journalism: Some Tentative Policy Proposals
Presentation to: Workshop on Journalism, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C., March 10, 2010
I wish first to thank FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, and Susan DeSanti from his staff, for inviting me to participate in this workshop, and all of you for attending. I must also thank my co-author, the journalist John Nichols, who is not here with us today but whose thinking permeates the ideas herein. All of the evidence to support the arguments that follows, unless specifically indicated, comes from our new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism.
Our book, which was published in January, was written as this country was in the midst of a sea change in how the crisis in journalism is understood. A year ago, as scores of newspapers closed and those that remained were cut to the bone, the response was almost like shell shock. Newspapers were emphasized because that was and is the primary source of original news, but the crisis extended to all newsrooms. Observers hoped that with the passage of time and a combination of Yankee ingenuity, revolutionary technologies, and an economic recovery, the commercial news media would rebound, and make a successful transition to a digital future. The theory was that we could have a lucrative private news media that would satisfactorily serve our needs for a Fourth Estate. Even the most optimistic scenarios for successful commercial news on the Internet required one or two more decades to pass before the platform would provide anything near a satisfactory level of journalism.
It is now clear that the evidence to support that position does not exist. The notion that commercial media can establish “paywalls” on the Internet and recoup their expenses there is questionable. Certainly some news media will be able to do this with a modicum of success, but only a few, and probably specialized media at that. The argument that the Internet will spawn a new generation of commercially viable citizen news media that will fill the void, too, has little credible evidence to support it. Again, some new digital ventures will make it, but they will replace only a smattering of the enormous losses in newsrooms we are experiencing. The evidence is in that the volunteer labor that fuels the blogosphere is in no position to generate original news stories in any significant quantity or quality.