Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Should We Bail Out the "Journalism" Business?

You know newspapers are on their last legs when two of the most prominent voices in “journalism” say the very profession is at risk, and we must act now to save it.

Or not.

Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post, and Columbia University Journalism Professor Michael Schudson, say the government should step in and stop the decline of newspapers. They want Congress and the IRS to allow local “news outlets” - in other words, newspapers - to operate as not-for-profit entities.
Most of them already are. They’re barely scraping by.

You’ve heard the reasons before. The internet, specifically sites like Craig’s List, took the profitable classified ad business away from newspapers years ago. Auto manufacturers tanked, relators put up their own websites to sell properties, and on and on. The revenue base was shriking at the same time a lot of chain newspapers were expanding - and adding huge debt to their balance sheets.

But if these lead voices in newspaper journalism like Downie and Schudson are singing the bailout song, you know their problems are a lot bigger than the effects of the downturn we’re in now. The problems of newspapers are systemic. Loss of advertisers and readers to the web, and an infrastructure that’s hugely expensive. Even Downie and Schudson admit it’s time to find an alternative to “newspapers”.

You’re reading one right now.

What I do isn’t “journalism” as most people would define it. True journalists have a very strict code of ethics and conducts, standards and practices. Watch the movie “All the President’s Men” and you’ll see a popular representation of how tough their standards are. (Then, watch one of my favorite movies, a 1981 Paul Newman flic called “Absence of Malice” to get another view of “journalism”.)
Just as the Washington Post exposed the corruption of Watergate, our own hometown paper The Wisconsin State Journal exposed the depth of corruption that existed in our own state capital. I’m not sure if those days are gone, but they’re fading.

Bloggers and online news outlets have been doing their fair share to keep a wary eye on people and institutions of power, and in many cases are driving the daily news cycle. But entirely too many people don’t realize bloggers, talk show hosts, and similar sources are often agenda-driven, not objective.

If ever there was a time the henhouse needed watching, it’s now - but I’m not sure who we should trust to be the watchdog. I’m pretty sure it would be a bad idea to “bail out” the newspapers, though.

As the old saying goes, when you’re up to your butt in alligators, it’s hard to remember your mission is to drain the swamp.

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