Schudson: Society must take responsibility for journalism’s future

In a video interview and transcript below, journalism historian Michael Schudson says government, philanthropy, public radio, nonprofits and universities all should have a role in advancing the future of journalism.

Schudson, who recently co-authored The Reconstruction of American Journalism for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, adds:

We need a mixed model of funding streams and we need society to take a kind of common responsibility for providing news to the democratic republic.

He adds that until recently journalism “on the whole it has not been that great and I think there is a lot of work to be done.”

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Leonard Witt: Hi, I’m Len Witt, and I’m at Yale for a conference on “Who will pay the journalists in the future? Who will pay the messenger?”  And I’m with Michael Schudson.

Michael Schudson: That’s right.

Leonard Witt: And Michael, tell us a little bit about who you are and what kind of work you’re doing?

Michael Schudson: I’m a Sociologist; I’m a Professor of Communication at the Journalism School at Columbia.  I have been there for four years and I’ve just begun full time recently.  And I’ve written a lot on the history of American newspapers and other aspects about American politics and media historically and at the present.  Most recently I co-authored with Leonard Downie, a report called the “Reconstruction of American Journalism” for the Columbia Journalism School about the future of news.

Witt: It’s a good read and people should read it.  I’m going to have my class read that in the fall if things aren’t outdated by then, but it’s a really good summary of where we stand right now.  So given that, what do you think the future of journalism might be?

Schudson: Well, in the report and in the month since it came out, and you can get it at www.columbiajournalismreport.org.  We are pretty optimistic actually with all of the problems that are going on in mainstream journalism, and the problems are serious economic problems.  A lot of qualified and experienced journalists are losing their jobs and there is a gap opening up, it seems to me, in mainstream local accountability journalism in particular.  And that needs filling for the sake of our society, for the sake of our democracy.  How to do that?  Well, I think Downie and I write in the report that there are many ways that’s happening already and they need some further support.  The costs of doing journalism have decreased significantly because of the internet.  There are online startups now all over the country. Serious news organizations sometimes with five, sometimes with 10, sometimes with 20 journalists, mostly young, but not all, who are doing serious reporting in their locales, sometimes that the mainstream media never did or hasn’t been doing for a long time.  So, how can they do this? Well, one, the costs are low, they don’t have to have paper, they don’t need a delivery truck, they just put it up online.  But you still need some money to pay these people and they are finding it primarily through philanthropy at this point.  We are hoping that government will take an interest in funding such projects, as well as mainstream projects. We are hoping to see National Public Radio get more involved in local news gathering.  They do a great job nationally and globally, but there is very little that they do locally.  We are interested to see universities step up to the plate as well and they are doing it too, journalism schools in particular. But we’ve seen it at environmental studies programs and ed schools as well are getting into the publication business, writing directly for the general public.  So there are various ways.  We need a mixed model of funding streams and we need society to take a kind of common responsibility for providing news to the democratic public.

Witt: You had said today that the bar of actually fulfilling the kind of journalism that has been done is fairly low because the quality of journalism, I’m thinking you’re saying that wasn’t that great to begin with, is that true or is that a little wrong?

Schudson: I did say that.  I think that as a historian of American journalism, I don’t think American journalism was of the sort we are talking about today:  a verified, close, critical look at major institutions of power in society, a thoughtful look at the society in its breadth beyond government. Journalism didn’t do very much of that in the 18th and 19th century.  Even into the 1950s.  I think there was a big change that journalism expanded its purchase in the 1960s and 1970s. I think that has left an important legacy.  We’ve come to rely on better journalism than we ever had before.  And so I think there is kind of an unfortunate nostalgia that it must have been good in the past.  Things were always better in the past it seems. But in this case I don’t think it’s true, unless you’re talking about the very recent past in the case of American journalism. The best of our journalism from 1970 or so on has been terrific.  I can hardly get through a day without the New York Times.  But on the whole it hasn’t been that great and I think there is a lot of work to be done.

Witt: You said you can hardly get through a day without the New York Times.  What happens if that day comes that the New York Times disappears?  It would have been unthinkable just 3 or 4 years ago, it’s not so unthinkable now.

Schudson: That’s right.  It is not unthinkable.  My best guess, but it’s not 100%, I’m not sure I would stake my life on it, is that the New York Times is going to be around for the next 50 or 100 years or beyond.  But in what form, I don’t know.  I would like it in my hand, print.  I think that has some real advantages.  But there is no doubt that they are putting more and more effort into their website which is quite terrific.  And you can get some things from it and do things with it that you can’t with the print paper.  But it’s true that the economics of news at the moment, the loss of advertising is severe and no one exactly knows how the news industry is going to get through it.

Witt: Okay.  So one more final question.  Will there be sufficient information in the public square to allow people to make well thought out choices in public life?

Schudson: I’m convinced there will, again in two respects.  On the one hand, it wasn’t so high in the past; we can do better than that.  In part we simply have a lot more information that you can pick up or I can pick up if we are really interested by going online. Campaign finance contributions: zero information before 1974.  Now it’s online, it’s readily available.  This is through federal action, through the campaign finance laws.  Information about foreign lobbyists contacting the Congress, you can get that information online.  That information wasn’t available even five years ago.  It was put together through the work of private organizations and journalistic organizations. ProPublica in this case. So, there are enormous advances in the information available to us from government, from NGOs, from databases being assembled.  I think absolutely that information is going to be available.  Is it going to be translated into the kind of readily available front page news stories that we’ve learned to rely on? That’s a matter that relies on journalistic human power, and that relies on whether we can finance journalism.

Witt: Okay.  So you sound to be an optimist?

Schudson: I’m an optimist.  You talk to people, these small online startups, as Len Downie and I did, the optimism is absolutely infectious.  Even journalists who have left or been fired from or been let go from traditional mainstream organizations now are working at lower wages for some of these organizations and they are grinning ear to ear. They have never had such a good time.

Witt: Perfect.  Thank you very much for your time.

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6 Responses to Schudson: Society must take responsibility for journalism’s future
  1. DBH / Talking New Media
    December 15, 2009 | 9:11 am

    Thank you for the video interview.

    I share Mr. Schudson’s optimism for journalism but have concerns about his thoughts on the future business model of New Media. Relying on either philanthropy or government seems like a dead end to me — unsustainable in the long run. I would like to see more involvement of the business side of journalism in these discussions with journalists and professors. Journalists alone can not solve the problems of today’s media world. The newspaper and magazine advertising community is suffering just as much in this environment as editors and reporters.

    Finally, the old business model may be dead — but let us not dance on its grave. It served the news business and journalists quite well for a long time. To believe that there will be no profit motive in the new journalism world doesn’t seem right to me.

    Thank you again.

  2. Ian Lamont
    December 15, 2009 | 11:39 am

    “You still need some money to pay these people and they are finding it primarily through philanthropy at this point. We are hoping that government will take an interest in funding such projects, as well as mainstream projects. We are hoping to see National Public Radio get more involved in local news gathering.”

    It’s difficult to read statements like this. The historical perspective of journalism is of very little use when predicting the future of news. That’s been the case since the earliest days of newspapers. The rapid pace of technological change makes it even more true today.

    Philanthropy as a business model will not save journalism.

    The government should not save journalism.

    NPR may save journalism as we currently know it, but not at the local level.

    What will save journalism? In the short term, the best hope for local news may lie in local television newsrooms, which have a relatively strong revenue picture compared to most local print publications.

    Long term, even that will fade as audiences further fragment and advertisers demand a more measurable ROI from their investments. Follow the money to the Web, and there may be opportunities for new journalism ventures, but not until the business models make sense and audiences find content that they like.

    In the meantime, the pace of technological transformation will continue to disrupt plans and platforms, making it difficult to identify winning formulas. Consider this — many newsgathering functions that we now assign reporters or photographers to do may in the future be handled by algorithms. Want to find out what happened at the scene of fire? A program will search out the local fire department feed and grab the time and location. Another app will scan publicly posted photos, videos, and blogs for timestamped and geotagged content from the site of the fire. Another app will create a 3D model of the burning house, showing the approximate path of the flames based on user-generated photos. A human editor may help identify the most useful content for the report, or add touches that computers can’t easily do or do well — conducting interviews, correlating the story with other developments (recent cuts in municipal fire services, etc.)

    In other words, it’s a bit early to be predicting the future of news. But there is certainly reason for hope that journalism will be saved, and new business models can not only support quality journalism that informs the public but also supports the people who practice it.

    Ian Lamont
    Managing Editor
    The Industry Standard

  3. Leonard Witt
    December 15, 2009 | 12:41 pm

    Hi DBH / Talking New Media:

    You write: I would like to see more involvement of the business side of journalism in these discussions with journalists and professors.

    Thoughtful people like Alan D. Mutter and Ken Doctor blog regularly about the business of journalism.

    On Thursday here in this interview series, economist Lisa George and later Robert G. Picard will talk about the economics of journalism. But you are right, where is the active business side within the industry. Certainly they could foster a different kind of discussion.

  4. Leonard Witt
    December 15, 2009 | 12:51 pm

    Hi Ian Lamont:

    Your scenario about apps and the news is very interesting. Later in this series I will have an interview with Robert Stephens, founder of the Geek Squad, and he really gets into apps and how much news we will be getting via mobile devices — and not computers. Sign up for our Future of Journalism alerts on the Center for Sustainable Journalism homepage.

    But in the meantime I will scoop myself. Here is Stephens talk at the Minnesota Public Radio Future of the News symposium. http://thefutureofnews.ning.com/video/the-future-of-news-robert

  5. sherryl turner
    December 15, 2009 | 6:32 pm

    Since most of the main stream papers simply follow the Democrat talking points I see no need to pay for something we can get for free.

  6. [...] course it’ll be somebody you’ve heard of. This will end quite a bit worse than that lecture Michael Schudson of Columbia gave that one time [...]

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