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Home > Publications > Quill > Reforming Journalism: The Rest of the Story


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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Reforming Journalism: The Rest of the Story

Rather than slapping a fresh coat of paint on the business model, perhaps there's a bigger problem: the cracked foundation

By Burton St. John and Jeff South

By now, it’s clear that traditional journalism outlets — especially daily newspapers and local television — are witnessing a continual erosion of their audiences.

The Pew Research Center provided a clear summary of this decline in late 2008. In the previous decade, local TV news had lost 12 percent of declared viewers. Newspapers fared worse: In just two years, print editions saw a 9 percent decline in readership. Not surprisingly, journalists and scholars have issued a slew of recommendations on how the industry can regain its financial footing.

The Congressional Research Service’s Suzanne Kirchhoff noted that “The U.S. newspaper industry is suffering through what could be its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” and offered some solutions. Her suggestions largely centered on new business models: subscription-supported news websites, Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, non-profit news operations, public financing of newspapers, and changes in copyright and antitrust laws.

"While all these observers offer compelling and relevant ideas, we think they make a critical mistake: They treat journalism’s economic model as the primary source of the industry’s financial problem. The root factor, however, may be more basic: the way most journalists define news leads to, in the public’s eye, stories that suffer from a lack of authenticity."

Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a journalism professor at Columbia University, echoed some of those prescriptions in October in a report titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” They said tax-code changes, philanthropic support and journalism-school initiatives could revitalize local news organizations. Downie and Schudson suggested that the federal government establish a Fund for Local News, which would award grants to news organizations.

In January, scholar Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols weighed in with their book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism.” The key to preserving quality newspapers, they said, is a commitment from government to constructing tax and credit policies, along with explicit subsidies, that can help professional journalism become more functional in the digital realm.

While all these observers offer compelling and relevant ideas, we think they make a critical mistake: They treat journalism’s economic model as the primary source of the industry’s financial problem. The root factor, however, may be more basic: the way most journalists define news leads to, in the public’s eye, stories that suffer from a lack of authenticity.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University, pointed to this aspect in a response to the “Reconstruction” report, saying, “If we really want to reconstruct American journalism, we need to look at more than the supply side; we need to explore the demand side, too.” Schaffer points out that news workers too often fail to see how their role may be contributing to journalism’s problems. She asks, “What ailing industry would look for a fix that only thinks of ‘us,’ the news suppliers, and not ‘them,’ the news consumers?”

Thinking about “them” — what New York University Professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience” — is as vital as pondering new economic models for journalism. In fact, it is mandatory for a more relevant journalism for two reasons: 1) news consumers indicate they see traditional journalism as inaccurate; and 2) news consumers are increasingly asserting that they have a role in defining what is credible news.

At first, it may appear counterintuitive that professional, objective journalism would be seen as inaccurate. But this perception of mainstream journalism has been with us a while. For example, in 2004, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that average daily circulation for newspapers had peaked by the mid-1960s and began a gradual decline. One important reason: The public has increasingly voiced qualms about the pictures of reality that the press provides. Over time, the public has amplified that concern by pointing to problems with press accuracy.

"Why such a preoccupation with the business model as the key indicator of journalism’s loss of consumer confidence? One big reason is that professional journalism too often fails to acknowledge how its own frame for providing accounts of the world can be dysfunctional."

Scholar Anthony DiMaggio has tracked public concern about press credibility and found that, from 1997 onward (except for a short period after the 9/11 attacks), at least 56 percent of Americans said that news accounts were riddled with inaccuracies. DiMaggio noted that the public sees the mainstream media as too close to government, “too assimilated into corporate America to fairly report the news” and too influenced by powerful interests. The public, he said, questions how the news media could possibly provide credible, independent reporting of the day’s events.

PREOCCUPIED WITH BUSINESS MODEL

Increasingly, citizens perceive that professional journalism does not provide accurate renditions of the world around them. Not surprisingly, the Project for Excellence in Journalism last year released a survey reporting 63 percent of Americans would not miss their paper if it ceased publishing. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts interpreted the poll results this way: “The industry’s decline is … [due] to the fact that it was slow to recognize and react to the threat the Internet represented.”

Unfortunately, that one-note answer is typical of professional journalism’s inclination to overly ascribe its struggles to the problems news operations experience adjusting their business model to new digital technologies.

Why such a preoccupation with the business model as the key indicator of journalism’s loss of consumer confidence? One big reason is that professional journalism too often fails to acknowledge how its own frame for providing accounts of the world can be dysfunctional.

Editors and reporters approach the day’s accounts with an orientation that prizes the principle of objectivity, a focus on data and facts and a striving for balance. Such journalistic values and practices are deeply rooted; they once proved vital to re-establishing journalism’s credibility, especially in the years after World War I. In fact, in 1922, Walter Lippmann observed in “Public Opinion” that the American press, especially jingoistic during that war, had been faltering mightily in providing reliable information to the public. The press needed to embrace a “system of analysis and record” and “bring to light the hidden facts,” he said. However, Lippmann’s successful advocacy for a “scientific” orientation to journalism came with a cost: It built within newsrooms an increasing proclivity for the worldviews of experts and not of citizens.

Which leads us to the second point: Increasingly, the public sees that it can express its concerns and views by leveraging new technologies to construct news accounts. One arena for this activity is within colleges and universities. Granted, attempting to guide both students and citizens toward sound basic reporting practices and trying to encourage conversation as news — at the same time injecting new technologies into the mix — can be a challenging approach to teaching and doing journalism. Nevertheless, some schools are moving forward with a more citizen-engaged approach to doing journalism.

The University of California at Berkeley, for example, not only teaches students about technology but also assigns them community beats, which they cover at DailyCal.org. Other schools sponsor online news platforms that weave citizen participation throughout their websites: Chicago’s Columbia College works to encourage student-journalist and citizen collaboration through ChicagoTalks.org, as does Elizabethtown College’s We-town.com.

But one cannot expect that students and citizens necessarily have the time, training and resources to do their own reporting. So some citizens open their wallets to support independent, non-profit journalism that they feel is more connected to their communities. The Voice of San Diego and Democracy Now are both notable examples.

As an online-only news source, Voice of San Diego works to provide local news in areas such as education, environment and housing that it maintains are overlooked by commercial news interests. The site provides structured ways for citizens to be part of news construction. A fact-check page allows readers to ask staffers to check on statements of city officials. A section called the People’s Post provides bloggers opportunities to report on items as diverse as city governance, conservation policies and development. Another intriguing part of the site is Pounding the Pavement, where a site staffer provides insight on how community members adjust to such problems as a dearth of transportation options, lack of walkable neighborhoods and community disruptions due to deportations.

Democracy Now, while operating across platforms (television, radio and online) and with a more national and international focus, is also funded by the public. While it does have a tendency to rely on a bullpen of left-leaning experts (Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, etc.), what is more remarkable about the program is its willingness to devote extended time talking to citizens who are directly involved in newsworthy events. For example, its April 15 program talked with a mother and her 12-year-old daughter who were both brought up on criminal charges for protesting in Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s office concerning continued funding of the war in Afghanistan.

Additionally, blogs can be a prominent source of citizen-constructed news. However, for the time being, their ability to connect with citizens about news on a local level is problematic. A 2006 study by Amanda Lenhart and Susannah Fox found that only 4 percent of Americans say they turn to blogs for news.

"Too often, the focus of professionalism rests in an approximation of a scientific, we-give-you-the-facts approach that reveals a worldview divorced from citizens’ concerns and sensibilities."

One reason for a low reliance on blogs for news is that they offer little in the way of original news content. According to Pew’s 2010 State of the News Media report, 80 percent of all items on blogs were linked to mainstream media outlets (most often The New York Times, CNN and the BBC). Rutger’s Tanni Haas, a longtime critic of the press’s difficulty maintaining relevance with the public, indicates that bloggers tend to only magnify a disconnect between news and the broader needs of a community. “Blogs tend to mimic the news reporting and commentary of mainstream news media sites,” he says, “and primarily inspire deliberation among people of similar political persuasions.”

ATTACKING THE ROOT PROBLEM

To recap, it is apparent that public concerns about media inaccuracy and a concurrent rise of venues that offer citizen-connected news construction both play a role in traditional journalism’s difficulties with pertinence. Not surprisingly, this has also translated into financial problems for many mainstream news operations. However, too much attention is placed on adjusting traditional journalism’s business model instead of attacking a root problem: the need to re-approach how to think about, and do, journalism. Without such adjustments, merely subsidizing or changing journalism’s business model and investing in more technology will allow entrenched concepts of objective news gathering and reporting to migrate to new settings. In short, the profession and the academy must adjust both how they define journalism and how they approach news construction — to focus on connecting with citizens instead of merely reporting to them.

So, rather than echo this focus on adjusting news media business models and adapting new technologies, we maintain that journalists must re-examine the long-established professional “toolkit” of objectivity they have used to report the world. Too often, the focus of professionalism rests in an approximation of a scientific, we-give-you-the-facts approach that reveals a worldview divorced from citizens’ concerns and sensibilities. As a result, professional journalism winds up caring more about guarding long-established principles and associated routines than examining reality as citizens see it and experience it.

RETHINKING OBJECTIVITY

Journalists must rethink objectivity, as Brent Cunningham urged in a 2003 article in the Columbia Journalism Review. He noted, in a world of spin, a “particular failure of the press: allowing the principle of objectivity to make [the press] passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”

Such passivity allows journalists to continue to rely on “experts” while ignoring multiple voices from the broader citizenry. Instead, news stories relay, at least partially, renditions framed by privileged interests. This puts journalism dangerously out of touch with the varied perspectives that need to be reported so that Americans can make well-informed decisions within our democracy.

This all begs the question: What role can journalism schools have in addressing the dysfunctions of objectivity? Our take is that, in general, j-schools are not the optimal place to begin such an initiative. Despite some higher education efforts to connect student journalism to the local citizenry, j-schools are not generally equipped to address the baggage that comes with traditional journalistic professionalism. Instead, they commonly focus on how to synthesize skills sets with new technologies so that students can find a job. For example, a study presented by Sara-Ellen Amster and Sara Kelly of National University’s School of Media and Communication at last summer’s convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication demonstrated that, like the industry itself, many colleges and universities are banking on technology and business strategies to land jobs for their journalism graduates.

J-schools proudly promote multimedia skills and seek to produce backpack journalists — reporters who carry the skills and equipment to provide content for newspapers, television and the Web. A few programs, such as Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Northwestern University’s Medill School, blend journalism and computer science. They see a future in mining, analyzing and presenting data or in creating better aggregators for news and information, such as the hyper-local news feed called EveryBlock.

"Let’s be clear here: Technological approaches to teaching journalism are important. ... But such tactics alone won’t save journalism. The news industry’s future needs more than Flip cameras, Twitter feeds and Django for Djournalists software training."

The latest buzzword among journalism educators is entrepreneurship: helping students find ways to fund the journalism they want to do. That might mean brainstorming ancillary products, such as niche publications or print-on-demand books that a mainstream news organization could offer; working for a non-profit news operation like ProPublica; or seeking donations and other financing for in-depth projects.

However, none of these avenues are designed to ultimately address the increasing disfavor that the public displays toward the mainstream news media. Instead, much like the journalism industry, academic programs too often focus on attempting to address journalism’s floundering economic model by equipping students with technology-informed multitasking skills.

Let’s be clear here: Technological approaches to teaching journalism are important. They emphasize mastering skills and strategies that the next generation of journalists needs to reach audiences regardless of platform — to use new media, social networking and other tools to disseminate news. But such tactics alone won’t save journalism. The news industry’s future needs more than Flip cameras, Twitter feeds and Django for Djournalists software training.

Attacking the problems with objectivity, then, begins in the newsroom. A bevy of new young journalists equipped to use the latest technology won’t help journalism’s credibility problems if the culture of the newsroom continues to emphasize treating news as a lecture instead of a conversation. Newsrooms need a new orientation toward news work. Instead of objectivity, journalism needs to take a side —the side of the public, and what it needs from the news to help daily life go well. As the civic/public journalism movement first maintained over 20 years ago, journalism should facilitate dialogue and bring the public into the discussion. Davis “Buzz” Merritt, in his 1998 book “Public Journalism and Public Life,” wrote that journalists need to engage the public as “fair-minded participants,” providing to citizens credible information and helping them find “a place for that information to be discussed and turned into democratic consent.”

Such a call is even more crucial today. Journalism can loosen its grip on its own coded language of professionalism (e.g., “objectivity,” “balance” and “detachment”). Instead, it can tilt the focus less toward experts (and their bevy of assertions, facts, data and predictions) and more toward the conversations of citizens. With such adjustments, the press could be on the way to addressing citizens’ concerns about accuracy, and thereby increase its own viability. As such, professionals and academics could move beyond the pragmatism of grappling with the promise of new technologies and the dangers of maladaptive business models and chart a path toward reinvigorating our press, and our democracy.

Burton St. John is an assistant professor of communication at Old Dominion University and co-editor of the recently published “Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen-Engaged Press.” Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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