The Fate of Journalism

(The Common Review, Spring 2010)

Editor's note: By now it is common knowledge that American newspapers are dying, or at best, in trouble. In response to this crisis, the entire November/December 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review was devoted to a long article called "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" (published online). The report was written by two noted figures: Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post; and the communication scholar and media historian Michael Schudson, who taught for many years at the University of California at San Diego before taking up his current post at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Their article delineated not just the problem, but outlined possible ways to save the institution of a strong, free press. Shortly after it was released, The Common Review commissioned Scott Sherman--a contributing writer of The Nation and a contributing editor of The Columbia Journalism Review--to ask Professor Schudson further questions about this proposed "Reconstruction." Here is their conversation in New York City, November 24, 2009.

Sherman: When journalists get together these days, the room feels like a funeral parlor. But your report has an optimistic title: The Reconstruction of American Journalism. Are you trying to counteract some of the gloom that currently pervades the profession?

Schudson: Our plan was to survey the scene to see what's happening–with the assumption that there's a serious problem out there. We also had the intention of coming up with suggestions and recommendations of what we can do. It's part of my predisposition to find some hope in situations. But I think that what led to the decided note of optimism in the report was talking to people launching online newspapers, the so-called "online startups." It was infectious–they were thrilled with what they were doing. And the shift in my thinking was that I initially thought of these startups as trivial. I thought, "Interesting, great, wonderful that they can do it. It'll employ 50 people across the country, but we're losing hundreds, even thousands, of journalists at major newspapers. There's an incommensurability here and it would be dumb to take much hope in these startups." But I changed my opinion about that. I think there's real growth or hope in them. With proper help these startups could constitute a vital model, and make a real difference in their communities.

Q: You traveled a lot for this report. Reading it, I was struck by the sheer variety of experiments taking place around the country. One of your sources uses the phrase, "new news ecosystem." Was there one project in particular that captured your imagination?

A: Actually, no. The one I know most about is Voice of San Diego. Leonard Downie did most of the traveling around the country. I went to Chicago, San Diego, places around New York, including the New York Times. And it was, in fact, the variety that impressed me.

The variety coalesced around certain basics. The first basic was: it's online. That makes it manageable, economically possible for one person or a handful of people to actually do journalism and get it out to people–and have some kind of impact. What I've learned since the report is almost as interesting as what I learned during the writing of it. I keep hearing about new developments. This morning I ran into a colleague who just got back from Kentucky. She had heard of a university that was going to create a state house bureau. I can barely turn around without hearing about some new effort–i.e., "Gee, I can put up a web site model, I have two friends who've just been laid off from whichever paper, I can employ my students in ways I hadn't thought about before."

Q: What is Voice of San Diego?

A: It was the idea of one local philanthropist, Buzz Woolley, and a friend of his, Neil Morgan, who had been the editor of the San Diego Tribune, maybe 20 years ago. When the rival San Diego Union absorbed the Tribune, Morgan stayed on as a columnist. The new Union-Tribune, staunchly conservative, gave the liberal Morgan a voice but after some years, they eventually said to him, it's over, goodbye. So here's this guy, he was at that time, 70, 75 years old, but he was let go. He was talking to people, saying, "We're dependent here on this monopoly newspaper. It doesn't cover all the news. What are we going to do about that?" They came up with the idea of an online publication that would focus exclusively on central, core political, economic issues about the city, city hall, economic development, land use–areas where there were problems in the city.

In other words, the chances were pretty high that there were various forms of corruption not being covered. They hired a couple of young men to put together a small news operation to do this. Within the first two years they had done some major investigative reporting. They also very quickly earned national recognition and won several journalism awards. All of this happened essentially because of one philanthropist. They began to diversify their source of funding, inviting their readers to make donations. They also invited their readers to write. In the early days they wanted everyone to send in 500 words, to get the word out that this thing existed.

Q: Let's talk about some of the recommendations you and Leonard Downie put forth. You suggest that philanthropists and foundations should step forward to assist high quality news organizations in this difficult period of transition. But Dwight Macdonald famously declared in his book on the Ford Foundation that "foundations are timid beasts."

A: I've heard that said often enough to believe it's probably true–foundations are timid. Nevertheless, the online startups have received a lot of their funding from foundations, notably the Knight Foundation, and also community foundations in St. Louis, San Diego, and Minnesota. This is another way in which the U.S. is, in some respects, distinguished from European democracies. We rely more on private funds and philanthropy, and at this particular moment, where everybody in universities and hospitals and foundations has 25 percent less money than they did three years ago, it's going to be difficult to extract money from foundations. However, I'm encouraged that some foundations have been moving, and one of the interesting features of the online news environment is that it doesn't take that much money to make a small organization work. There are some things that they don't have that the New York Times does have, like lawyers, and they might need that. So some of the online startups are creating a network in which they will very likely develop some common resources, like legal assistance. How can you have an organization of twelve people that is relatively immune to threat as the New York Times is? That's going to take some work. We're speaking to a group of community foundations in a couple of months. They're interested; some are involved already. Supporting a news organization–this is new for them. It's going to take a little thinking and a little getting used to.

Q: Several years ago the Ford Foundation came under attack for grants it made to civil society organizations in Palestine, and NPR has been heavily criticized by pro-Israeli groups for its coverage of Israel and the occupied territories. One can imagine foundations providing grants to local news initiatives, but I suspect foundations will be more reluctant to help pay for news from the Middle East and South Asia, for instance.

A: Local news is where we anticipate the real gaps. There are multiple news organizations covering national news and foreign news. Local TV news stations are mostly covering crime and the weather. The local newspaper has been for a long time now a monopoly organization in American communities. So if you cut the state house coverage from one or two newspapers there will be a dramatic impact. That's why in the report we focus on local news. That's why we need, in a way, hundreds of foundations putting in some share of their assets to support local news coverage. There are enough specialized constituencies to support national and global news on a commercial basis, not to mention the additional global news coverage now that people can access the BBC, The Guardian, and other foreign publications online.

Q: You also call on public and private colleges and universities to assist journalism in these trying times. Are you optimistic that universities and university presidents can play a useful role? Recall that Columbia University's Lee Bollinger is rare among university presidents in that he has a deep and sustained interest in journalism.

A: Yes, I am optimistic. Why? Because I see how universities can play a role. Since writing the report, I had a conversation with Walter Robinson, a former investigative reporter at the Boston Globe who is now teaching at Northeastern. In his two years at Northeastern, his students have published a dozen front-page Boston Globe stories. Robinson notes that his personal connections at the Boston Globe were key: he had a channel for his students's stories. Also, he had a real commitment to Boston, to that community, to that school, to the Globe. To some degree, could one do something like that in Miami, Houston, Omaha, Milwaukee? I think so. One of the wonderful things about journalism is that, although it takes some training to do it well, it's not brain surgery. In the past, undergraduates would write things and I would say, "that's wonderful." Now, I can say: "that should be published–let's publish it!" Online, of course.

Is it possible for a brand-new journalism school graduate to imagine creating his or her own news organization, making a modest living at it? It is possible, because people are doing it. Would anyone have thought of that ten years ago graduating from journalism school? I don't think so.

Q: It's clear that journalists will have to be much more entrepreneurial than they were in the past. Do you agree?

A: As someone who has spent my whole career in the bureaucracy we call academia, I haven't been an entrepreneur, but I think you are right. People I know who run nonprofits depend on the kindness of strangers. It's hard work–you struggle for a $5,000 grant. What time do you have left to run the operation? There are lots of things to work out here. What's heartening from the research we did is how many people are willing to take on that challenge. Journalists who are taking buyouts or losing their jobs--people in their 40s and 50s--are working in some of these new enterprises. What they told us is that they're having the time of their lives; they're doing what they originally went into journalism to do. And they're doing it by means of reinvention.

Q: San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom recently said that if a newspaper like the San Francisco Chronicle folded, "people under thirty won't even notice." Do you blame young people for neglecting newspapers?

A: I do not. Young people have always–from data over the past 50, 60, 70 years–read newspapers less than older people. They' re reading less now than was the case a generation ago. Do I blame them for that? No. And I don't think we have good data about when people read newspapers past and present. Why did they read them in the past? How much of it did they read? Did they read the front page headlines and turn to the sports? If that's what most people did (and I think that's what a lot of people did), is it worse for young people now to go to their homepage, go to the headlines, and then go on to their e-mail or Facebook or whatever they want to be online for?

The best data I am aware of concerning what people know about politics compared the results of survey questions that asked for factual knowledge from 1945 to 2007, questions like: Can you name one senator from your state? Can you name the vice president of the United States? The result is...there's no change, or very little change. In a way it's quite remarkable. The level of factual knowledge has been constant for half a century, despite much higher levels of education, despite the novel distractions of TV and video games and computers and so on.

Actually, you can blame the newspapers, too. They had tons of money and wasted it. I'm sure the executives have nice summer places and yachts and whatnot. They were making ridiculously large profits–from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, up until very recently, the last few years. People forget (or don't know) that American journalism expanded enormously after 1970. It was a large and growing business.

Still, it's easy with hindsight to look back and say, "Guys, you should've known that there would be this new technology, that there would be an economic downturn (there always is eventually), you should not have been hiring as much as you did, you should have invested your funds another way." I don't know how to tell people that 20 years out.

Q: It's often said that young people don't pay for newspapers; they read the news online for free. Tell me about the reading habits of your students at Columbia Journalism School. Do they read leading newspapers? Do they read them online, or on dead trees?

A: I wish I had a really good answer to that. I have some data from the MA students. From the questionnaires I've read, they all at least glance at the New York Times on a regular basis. Where? More online than in print. Beyond the New York Times, there's quite a lot of variation. At least a third, maybe a half, read the New Yorker. At least half read it online. When they do read in print, those who do are more likely to read it longer than those who read it online. To the question, "What did you read the day before?" one student said 25 minutes on, 30 minutes on NYT in print, 10 minutes on, 10 minutes on WSJ in print, and half an hour on In other words, they're reading a combination of print and online papers. The online sources are often aggregators that lead them to other sources. Huffington Post came up a lot, also Daily Beast. A number of students say, "I read the NYT and what my friends forward to me." A lot of reading is sort of lateral, rather than direct from the media. They get news more regularly online, but they may not spend as much time with that as they do print.

Q: The thought of reading a ten thousand word New Yorker article on a computer screen doesn't appeal to me. I suppose your students don't worry about eye strain.

A: I was at an exhibit at the New York Public Library – concerning Voltaire's Candide-- and there was a video featuring the library's director, Paul LeClerc. He talked about reading Candide when he was 18 and what attracted him to it. Among the things he mentioned was that it was 90 pages. He said, "I still prefer a 90-page to a 900-page book." These days publishers publish both kinds. People read very long novels. Kids, with the Harry Potter series, read very long novels. Book-publishing has grown enormously in the past decade. People are doing both. Consider the number of books by journalists about the war in Iraq – I don't know what the number is – but they seem to appear every few weeks. Judging from reviews, they're good. Somebody's reading them, and you get something from them that you don't get from the daily news stories. They begin to put things in perspective in ways that you can't by reading the daily paper. I don't think books are anywhere close to dying.

Q: Both of us admire the work of the late professor James Carey, who I would describe as a philosopher of the American press. Carey believed that corporate newspapers treated their readers like customers and clients instead of citizens. He felt that newspaper editors needed to cultivate (and create) a democratically-engaged and civic-minded "public"-- not only through muckraking, but through civic activism and ongoing conversation. In 1995, Carey lamented a journalistic model in the U.S. that "justifies itself in the public's name but in which the public plays no role, except as an audience; it is a receptacle to be informed by experts and an excuse for the practice of publicity." (James Carey: A Critical Reader, 247). Carey died in 2006. What do you think he would he say about the online journalism experiments you and Downie write about? Does the web embody Carey's vision of journalistic democracy?

A: You're right, I do admire Jim Carey and his work. But I admire it for a kind of underlying wisdom and voice, rather than necessarily agreeing with any particular proposition. I think he was a little on the romantic side about news as conversation, particularly the notion that that's what it had been in the ever-receding past–beginning in London's eighteenth-century coffeehouses. How much conversation about the political life of the kingdom could there be when reporters were not yet permitted to observe the proceedings of Parliament? And when newspapers reached such a small percentage of the population?

Early American papers were nonconversational in that they printed almost exclusively foreign news. You couldn't find out about Philadelphia in Benjamin Franklin's Gazette. You could find out about London. So the new media--online media-- do generate response, they do make increasingly possible answering back to a reporter, to an editor, becoming part of a conversation. The NYT web site is a phenomenon and it does invite dialogue.

But is it the kind of dialogue that builds a democratic society? I think that's the question Carey would ask. I can't answer for him. But I think he would've had some skepticism. "Online no one knows you're a dog," reads the caption of a famous New Yorker cartoon. There's some truth in this and it points to the problem of voices becoming disembodied. Is that going to build community? In some ways that's an empirical question: Do people come together through online discussion? And the answer is--sometimes they do. Are they coming together in new ways, or different ways? I think it forces us to rethink what we mean by community and to think about how what people read or how they interact or where they read something changes in different social, economical, technological and political circumstances. Everyone my age (that is, the 1960s generation) marvels at their students, or their own children – how do you do it? We try to grasp what the experience of the world is like for someone who takes this multiplicity and constancy of communication for granted.

I heard David Carr from the New York Times speaking at a conference a week ago about his experience at the Sundance Film Festival. He said he was so busy pushing out content–Tweets, blogs, stories–that he had been there for some time before he stopped himself and said: "Wait–I haven't even seen a film yet!"

He then made a comment that's been sitting in my mind since: "I have to find ways to keep my job from making me stupid." He's a transitional figure in the new technology world. He's skilled at the new means of communication, he uses them on a daily basis, but he's also old enough to have experienced an older world. You can feel in his comments some frustration with this new world, as well as enjoyment of it and pleasure of it. But he seems to worry that something is being lost.

Computers and the internet and the web help make us smart in lots of way. Carr held up his laptop and said, "I have more resources in here than in any newsroom I've ever worked in." Yes, we all know the ways in which that is true. And the ways in which it's not true, too. He knows how, if you've been in a newsroom, there are people at the other desks with years of wisdom that can't be found online. But his emphasis is clear: the new online resources are totally amazing.

Q: 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 five percent of citizens that are already passionately engaged by politics? Is it consciously aimed at a "civic elite"?

A: 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.

But 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 healthcare 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.

Q: In "Final Edition," an elegiac and acerbic essay he wrote for the November issue of Harper's Magazine, Richard Rodriguez evoked the intertwined history of San Francisco and the San Francisco Chronicle. He concluded with words that call to mind Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism: "Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with `I.' Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin's wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city." Do you share the pessimism inherent in this passage?

A: I do not. I think it's extraordinary that he can be in touch with his auntie in Delhi.

Q: I think Rodriguez is lamenting the fact that people around him are staring at digital photographs and not reading the morning paper.

A: There's a youthful cosmopolitanism that seems easier and more natural for people than it was a generation or two back. The internet is as important as the jet airline in this. The combination is very powerful and people can stay in touch with homelands better than ever. This means there are new possibilities for terrorist networks and new possibilities for family networks.

Q: I was struck by one line in your report, a quote from the associate director of Human Rights Watch. She said: "Human Rights Watch has dozens of investigators covering more than 70 countries–more than the foreign correspondent corps of either the New York Times or the Washington Post." Isn't that a excellent trend for people interested in human rights, who can go to Human Rights Watch's web site and read these reports?

A: Yes, it's remarkable. Anyone who has access to the Internet, whether it's in a small town in Nebraska or the center of London, can see that material.

Q: Journalism schools are still in business; "creative nonfiction" conferences draw thousand of people; Poets & Writers magazine is still full of ads. As the economic infrastructure of the professional writing world weakens, how do we explain the desire of so many people, young and old, to be "writers"?

A: It's true that the economic infrastructure of the professional writer is weakening. The infrastructural support for the amateur writer is growing, and it'll be interesting to ask–comparing the median 25-year-old in 2009 versus 1970, how many words or sentences do each write in a day? I cannot imagine that it hasn't increased enormously.

How often do people write letters? I remember my parents saying, "you have to write a thank-you note." I've told my kids, "you have to write a thank-you note." It seems like a big deal. Or you just do it–you go to your computer and it's done. The result of that way of convenience is that people write more. Does text messaging count? People in Japan are writing novels as text messages, and then they later turn these into books published in a conventional fashion. Print – in the newspaper business, less so in magazines, less so in books--is in trouble. Text is not in trouble. Text is growing by leaps and bounds.

Q: You are not only a scholar of the press, but a scholar of democracy as well. Does the typical American citizen have a keen desire to read a newspaper? How necessary are newspapers to the functioning of our democracy?

A: Politics is a minority taste and probably has been for a long time. In the nineteenth century, as I look at it, there was significantly higher voter turnout than there is today. Newspapers were significantly worse than they are today, and more partisan. By worse I mean less trustworthy and containing more errors. There was next to no investigative reporting. There was hardly any reporting outside of politics. You read stories that catered to your point of view, hence the partisanship. That's why the professionalized press today takes pride in restraining its own voice and values. That sense of professionalism has taken a long time to develop. I think it's worth being proud of, but it's always been a minority taste. Newspapers have managed to pay for it because they also have crossword puzzles, astrology columns, and sports.

It's more important than it used to be for us to follow the news, news both from across the ocean and from Washington. We should know more, but there're a lot of things we should know more about. I should know more how a flu vaccine works. I should know how my car operates, but I don't. What's the minimum and what's the optimum knowledge one should have as a citizen in a democracy? I don't know the answer to that. I don't think anyone else does either.

Q: But you've spent a lifetime studying journalism and democracy! How can you sidestep the question of how much news is required in a democratic society?

A: Because we have different democracies over time. Our 2009 American democracy works in very different ways from 1859 or 1909. In 1909, the United States Senate was elected by state legislature. People didn't vote for the Senate. The president didn't offer a budget to the Congress. The president wasn't expected to have a legislative program. Women didn't vote. Black men for the most part didn't vote. In many respects, I see this as a much better, stronger democratic society than it was a century ago. It's more inclusive, differences are more respected, people have, in some ways, greater connection and more available knowledge about what the government's doing.

Unlike some thinkers on this topic, I have very little nostalgia for American democracy of the past. A common response to our report, coming not only from political conservatives, is: "How can you advocate government funding for news? This is the next step to a totalitarian society!" To me, that reflects such a remarkable provincialism. The BBC has not kept the United Kingdom from being a democratic society. Direct subsidies of newspapers have not kept Sweden or Denmark or Norway from being democratic societies. They do their democracy differently.

Q: As you note in the report, the FCC currently collects $7 billion a year from our phone bills. Some of this money is devoted to the underwriting of telecom service for rural areas and the wiring of schools and libraries. But you suggest that this money should instead be directed to a "Fund for Local News" that would advance local news reporting. Are you trying to lay the groundwork for a BBC-style system in the US?

A: No. We'd like to see the public radio affiliates given more resources to covering news. We know that there's interest among public radio executives. The infrastructure exists. The emphasis would be that we would provide grants to traditional and new news organizations that are seeking ways to get their news products out to wider audiences. It would be a source of funding and ideas for people at any kind of news organization to compete for. There are all kinds of complications here: Who's going to make the decisions? How do you prevent political influences? How do you insulate that bureaucracy from political influence? How do you include journalist themselves in the decision-making process itself, without entirely turning it over to them? A lot of details haven't been worked out.

Still, when you look at something like the BBC, there are critics of it, but they're pretty respectful. The BBC does quite a remarkable job of news coverage, with more money. It is an arm's length removed from direct control by the government, and it's supported by fees paid by individuals who own TV sets.

Q: What prevented you and Leonard Downie from directly proposing a BBC-style model for the US?
A: What we wanted to do was to help put the "public option" on the table. We need to recognize that it's already here in the U.S. I was prerecording a show, a TV panel discussion on PBS. And I was asked by another panelist, a print reporter, "How can you and Downie advocate government funding of news? Don't you know government funding means government control?"

I said, "are we not recording this show for public broadcasting?" He had no answer. Yes, government money is now a small part of PBS. But PBS and NPR wouldn't exist without the government. But the larger answer to your question is that the size of the BBC is beyond American imagining, including my own. It has an annual budget of 3.5 billion pounds. That's some 6 billion dollars. It's a gorilla in the living room of British media, and this causes problems of its own. Are they making it harder, now that they're a web site, for others to compete? I see a more pluralistic media system emerging here in the United States.

A strength in the American system is that we created, through marketplace models in the New York Times and Washington Post, great news institutions. Even in their reduced circumstances, they can remain great news institutions and in some ways improved news institutions because they have these enormous resources that they can now turn to use online and print. Do we need a BBC? I'd certainly like to see a much stronger public broadcasting system, but I don't know if we need a BBC.

Q: Are you invested in the debate, currently raging in newspaper circles, over whether newspapers should charge for online content?

A: Yes, I don't have the emotional investment that some people do, that it violates everything that the web is about. I'd like to see people who are in the business of providing relevant and important public information to citizens of democracy earn a living doing that. If there's some way to charge on the web, that's all right with me. I don't have a principled objection the way some people do. I understand that, I sympathize with it, but if the cost is, say, the New York Times cutting its staff in half, that's too large a cost.

Q: Some pundits have wondered if the New York Times will survive. Did you ever think you would live to see the day when a question like that would be tossed around?

A. No, I did not.

Q: What does it say about the world around us?

A: The world is changing, and it's led journalists to recognize the one thing journalists were not trained to recognize for so long: which is that they work inside profit-making corporations. They are dependent on that forbidden world on the other floor that brings in the advertising–and the advertising isn't coming in. It makes you go back to square one and figure out what really counts, what really matters, and how you're going to be able to support the news.