Internet to Newspapers: Drop Dead—A Program Recap with Nicholas Lemann and Victor Pickard

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nicholas Lemann  Victor Pickard

Philanthropy New York hosted a recent program on the current crisis affecting print media and newspaper companies throughout the United States. (Vincent Stehle has also contributed a post on this issue.) We asked two of the presenters from that program—Nicholas Lemann (pictured left), Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Victor Pickard, a Senior Research Fellow at Free Press (who will join the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University this fall)—to share their thoughts on the subject with Smart Assets.

Nicholas Lemann:
These days I speak about this topic quite often, at least twice a week, and it’s interesting to see how differently each group frames the problem. For a group of newspaper people, newspapers must be saved; for a group of Web people, newspapers must go; and there are a lot of compass points in between.

What I think the primary need is right now is for original, independent news reporting on matters of public importance. Opinion, argument, and discussion have a much easier time finding their own way in the world without a support system, since, in the age of the Internet, access to both consumption and production of opinion is dramatically freer and wider than it has ever been. But it’s easy to forget that the great profusion of blogs and aggregators generally rests on a bedrock of original news reporting. The number of people who do this in the United States is decreasing rapidly, as the traditional economics of the news business, especially newspapers, collapse. These reporters did their work at the local and state levels, and it probably isn’t being done by anybody right now. That leaves a wide range of public institutions without somebody watching them and providing the public with an ongoing account of their doings. An important social good that used to be provided by the market is now slipping out of our hands.

To my mind, we need to be creative about how news reporting might be supported in the future; I heard lots of interesting suggestions when I was at Philanthropy New York about the kinds of mixed models that are common in educational, healthcare, and arts organizations. But we should be clear that some new support system is urgently needed; that it ought to be ongoing, not temporary and project-based; and that people need to be (modestly) paid to do news reporting and editing full-time—based on what we have seen through a lot of experimentation thus far, it will not be provided by peer or social production. Large corporate interests are certainly not the only possible producers of news reporting, but news organizations of some kind are necessary.

Victor Pickard:
Business stories about newspapers dying at the hands of the Internet miss the bigger picture—our current crisis isn’t about the future of newspapers, it’s about the survival of democracy-enabling journalism. The information produced by journalism is a public good. It’s not a commodity bought and sold like tennis shoes or cars; it’s an essential public service and a critical infrastructure with positive externalities that transcend its revenue stream. Like many public goods, journalism has never been fully supported by the market; it’s always been subsidized. Although the advertising subsidy model has collapsed and commercial media no longer generate piles of money for relatively small groups of investors, our democratic society still requires quality journalism. Therefore, this crisis calls for transitioning from a commercial newspaper model to a public service media model, one that serves the public interest and does not rise and fall with market fluctuations. But good journalism is expensive. At the moment, there’s little evidence that any commercial—or even philanthropic—model will fully compensate for what’s being lost.

This market failure, therefore, is a problem for public policy. That there’s a legitimate role for the state in guaranteeing a free and robust press—an uncontroversial notion in other democracies—becomes clear if we know our history. We’ve been told repeatedly that government should never get involved in media. But the government has always been involved in media. Since the days of the early republic, the state subsidized newspapers with low postal rates through the mail, which was at that time primarily a news delivery system. Since the early 20th century, the government has offered free exclusive licenses for broadcasters to use the public airwaves. And, more recently, without significant government subsidies the Internet would likely not exist in its present form.

History reveals moments when a public service model for journalism nearly triumphed over market-driven models, but shifting political landscapes and a lack of foresight ultimately doomed such alternative visions. Our task is to not miss another historic opportunity—one that invites vigorous experimentation with bold new models. Toward these ends are five policy proposals discussed in a recent report released by Free Press:

  • new ownership structures, such as low-profit limited liability company (L3C) models;
  • new tax incentives and bankruptcy laws that encourage local, diverse, nonprofit, low-profit, and employee ownership;
  • a journalism jobs program that provides training and retraining for novice and veteran journalists in multimedia and investigative reporting;
  • an R&D fund for journalistic innovation that invests in experimentation and identifies and nurtures new models;
  • and a new public media system that transforms public broadcasting into a world-class noncommercial news operation that utilizes new technology and focuses on community service.

The philanthropic community has an important role to play in many of these options, but to build a world-class public service media system will also require broad engagement from journalists, academics, activists, policymakers, and local community members.

You can also listen to an audio synopsis of this program—featuring Steve Coll, President of the New America Foundation, and more comments from Mr. Pickard—by clicking here.

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