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University of Wisconsin–Madison

How can we save journalism?

Canadian journalist Alan Bass argues that journalists who worry about the future of newspapers are asking the wrong question. Rather than ask, ‘How can we save newspapers?’ we should ask, ‘How can we save journalism?’ Bass believes that professionalizing journalism is a step in the right direction.

I opened up a local newspaper the other day to see a section front topped by this big, bold headline: “How will newspapers be saved?”

No doubt you’ve seen, perhaps written, similar headlines asking the same question. The news industry – and newspapers in particular – are in a state of crisis. Newspapers that have endured all manner of troubles in the past are on life support today. Some are already dead.  With increasing urgency, if not panic, the same question is being asked throughout North America: How can newspapers be saved?

The trouble is: It’s the wrong question.

It isn’t newspapers that need saving. It’s journalism. To put it more exactly, what needs to be preserved is the public service journalists provide by using a particular set of ethical methodologies to gather, assess and report information people need to function effectively as human beings and citizens in a free society.

Slowly, that realization is beginning to break through the public discussion about the newspaper death rattle. Paul Starr got close recently in The New Republic when he wrote that “newspapers have helped to control corrupt tendencies in both governments and business.” An article in Canada’s Globe and Mail got even closer: “If print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles – informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable? For all the wonders of online media, so far no viable substitute has emerged for the power of the press.”

I believe they’re talking about journalism.

As media has evolved, journalism has been an ever decreasing component of its output. Journalism plays a dominant role in newspapers because they invented it. The rough and tumble days of fierce political debate that gave birth to the concept of freedom of the press also led to the notion of improving public discourse by using that freedom to gather, assess and report news without, as the saying goes, fear or favor.

Minor role for journalism

But journalism clearly plays a very minor role in post-newspaper media systems. In most communities, newspaper journalists still do most of the legwork in gathering and assessing information. Journalists working in other media depend on the original daily reporting being done by newspapers to guide their own work. That’s why there’s a sense of panic. As some have noted, if the newspaper as a community institution withers away, the foundation upon which the modern system of journalism is built withers with it.

Even so, newspapers themselves are not solely devoted to journalism. The typical daily newspaper content model is a compendium of news, information, commentary, diversions, entertainment and advertising. Newspapers have always been in the business of building audiences to sell to advertisers and they’ve been willing to incorporate and bundle just about any kind of content to do that. As other media formats have increasing stolen eyeballs and advertisers away, newspapers have tended to incorporate more and more non-journalism content.

Fewer and fewer people want or need a daily newsprint compendium. Audiences gather their own content by visiting the websites, publications and broadcast channels that meet their needs. Advertisers follow their customers. The content traditionally packaged by newspapers is being explosively unbundled, forcing journalism for the first time to face a future in which it will stand or fall solely on its own merits.

That is why the question is not whether newspapers can be saved. Although most of us would like to think some newspapers – the New York Times, for example – will survive this crisis in some format, the standard daily newspaper content and business model seems to be all but dead. The important question is what happens to the now unbundled public-service journalism it invented?

A business issue?

In seeking the answer, many have positioned the problem as strictly a business issue, focusing attention on alternative business models for journalism. Can we fund journalism through philanthropy or endowments? Can we develop non-profit business models? Should we be seeking government subsidies? Can we somehow leverage networks of “citizen journalists” to provide a comprehensive system of news coverage? Some are experimenting with truly original ideas, like putting story ideas up for public auction and covering only those that attract sufficient funding.

Many find these alternatives scary. Every one of them has detractors. We are warned philanthropists won’t support journalism unless it somehow supports their agendas. Citizen journalists lack the skills or the authority to dig into dark corners and demand accountability from the powerful. If for-profit newspapers are losing money, why should we expect non-profits to break even?

The alternative that scares American journalists the most is the idea of government funding. For those of us doing journalism in other developed nations, that’s a difficult fear to fully understand. In Canada, the government-funded CBC is recognized as one of our country’s most trustworthy and comprehensive providers of journalism. The tax-funded BBC is one of the world’s most-referenced news sources.

Obviously, government-funded journalism is not a nutty communist concept. It is true that journalists who work for government-funded news organizations may face political interference. Both the CBC and the BBC from time to time have been forced to defend themselves from unhappy governments. They’ve done so exactly the same way as newsrooms in profit-making newspapers have defended themselves from commercial interference – by insisting on governance structures that give newsrooms a critical measure of autonomy. . In any case, if U.S. journalism has demonstrated anything in the past few years, it is that rejecting government funding doesn’t guarantee journalists won’t act like government toadies. Remember weapons of mass destruction?

How journalism will be financed is not the first issue that needs addressing. From a media business perspective, journalism isn’t the surest way to build and keep an audience, compared to alternatives like sit-coms, games, social networks, horoscopes or pornography, so it must seek support on other grounds. I suspect the journalists of the future will need to be funding agnostics and will find themselves working in organizations large and small that are financed in a variety of ways – a non-profit organization devoted to practicing public service journalism could run on any conceivable combination of donations, government and other community-sourced funds, advertising revenue and possibly even subscription income. Perhaps some for-profit media organizations would continue to host public-service journalism if they could obtain tax benefits for doing so.

What are we trying to save?

The first step toward securing journalism’s future is to be crystal clear about what it is we’re trying to save.

If we are going to seek alternative funding and tax incentives on the basis that journalism provides a necessary public service (as opposed to a surefire mass audience), then we can’t afford to continue to define journalism as sloppily as we have in the past. And let’s face it, we’ve gotten pretty sloppy. When comedian Jon Stewart publicly ridiculed the “journalism” practiced by CNBC’s Jim Cramer and the hosts of Crossfire, he was like the little boy who cried out that the emperor had no clothes. Except this time, what’s being exposed as false to the knowing delight of the audience is the claim that journalists serve the public interest.

I know many good journalists will say that’s unfair – that they and their colleagues aren’t like the circus performers ridiculed by Stewart. And that’s true.  The journalists who have turned their craft into a clown routine are still the exception, not the rule. The problem as it affects the future of journalism is that while most journalists define journalism by best practices, much of the public defines journalism by the worst.  Stewart’s well-received mockery of our ethics shouldn’t shock anyone. Opinion polls have charted a steady decline in public trust for journalists for decades. But now that journalism has to stand on its own merits, our collective failure to consistently meet our own standards is a problem we can no longer ignore.

Journalism standards today vary so widely throughout the industry it’s hardly surprising or inaccurate if non-journalists doubt there are any standards at all. If journalism is going to seek public support on its own merits, this ethical laxity is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our first step toward creating a future for journalism must be to acknowledge that journalism’s current structures of standard setting and accountability are not working and must be changed.

The mechanism by which we currently define journalistic standards and hold journalists accountable for meeting them is the newsroom. But there is no single newsroom standard – they vary wildly. Some newsrooms have formal, written codes of ethics and enforce them. Others have codes of ethics but don’t enforce them. Some don’t have any formalized standards at all. Some newsrooms protect the independence of their journalists, but others require journalists to write promotional material for advertisers. Some expect journalists to investigate the truth of all claims, but others are content to reprint news releases verbatim. Some demand journalists avoid conflicts of interest, others turn a blind eye if journalists moonlight for the organizations they cover.

I could go on but I think the point is clear. Even in the days when newsrooms were strong, they were not an adequate occupational standard-setting mechanism. Today, when most newsrooms have been gutted and the remaining staff overworked and demoralized, they certainly aren’t doing any better.

Apart from newsroom standards, the policing of professional integrity is left to individual journalists. This is best expressed as: “If you don’t like the way we do things, quit.” Nobody knows how many excellent journalists have left the profession under this accountability mechanism, but everybody knows some. I doubt I’m alone in viewing this approach to upholding ethics as ultimately self-destructive for journalism. In the end, it only serves to provide cover to those who masquerade as journalists.

Clearly, these mechanisms are not enough to provide the level of clarity about journalism’s purpose and accountability that will be needed as we seek public support. We need to define journalism more carefully, we need to make it clear it is not about horoscopes, comics, dating advice, celebrities without underwear, recipes or people yelling at each other and screaming at the audience. But how?

Professionalizing journalism

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Journalists aren’t the first occupational group to serve a public purpose. We’re not the first occupational group that needed to rid itself of charlatans. We not the first that needed to demonstrate a higher level of public accountability. We’re not the first to require practitioners to meet high standards of ethical conduct. These are issues that have bedeviled every profession – lawyers, doctors, architects, teachers and so on. Each has developed its own way to meet professional standards, assure the public of its commitment to public service and hold practitioners accountable by organizing itself as a self-regulating profession.

The idea of professionalizing journalism has traditionally been regarded as a non-starter by many journalists. Some argue journalism can’t be professionalized because no formal training is necessary to enter the field. We may want to revisit or at least refine that assumption. I entered the field (a long time ago) without a journalism degree, but there’s no question I underwent intense training during my first months on the job until I learned to do it properly. Even if journalists don’t necessarily require a journalism degree (a premise increasingly contradicted by hiring practices), that’s not the same thing as saying they don’t require knowledge. Would it really do journalism harm to insist that aspiring practitioners demonstrate a basic level of knowledge about what it is they aspire to do?

The most deeply ingrained argument against professionalization is that it would violate freedom of the press. That might still be a valid argument if the primary purpose of today’s “press” or media was journalism. But it isn’t. The argument might also be valid if professionalization would block access to the press by the non-credentialed. But we live at a time when anybody can publish or broadcast anything they like. We now have the freest “press” in our history, and journalism’s survival is very much in doubt. What journalists need to realize is that freedom of the press means the press is entirely free not to support journalism.

What can we do to save journalism?

We need to start by defining our standards and holding ourselves publicly accountable.  We need to be in a position to honestly persuade citizens (and potential funders) that society needs trained professionals working full-time as public intelligence agents devoted to gathering, assessing and reporting the information people need.

We need to be able to demonstrate that journalists are trained and committed to providing effective, ethical journalism for a public purpose – even if that means we institute an effective credentialing process and subject ourselves to a system of peer review and accountability.

If we do that, I believe we can save journalism.

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