Wednesday, April 15, 2009

This Way Out: How Journalism Can Reclaim Its Place in the World

SO newspapers are shuttering by the dozens and journalism students are fleeing news agencies for higher--and higher--paying ground. Does that mean the profession should throw in the carpet? Hardly.
A lot has been said of what's going wrong in the journalism profession these days. Newspapers are declining, advertisers are refusing to buy ad space in print, and twenty and thirtysomethings are getting more of their news from online resources than dead trees. It's all added up to a witch's brew of mass layoffs that has many veterans--and more than a few interns--wondering what their future is going to be in the midst of a global economic crisis that has accelerated a steady decline in newsprint. But there is a way out. It's painful, and there is no guarantee that newspapers will return to their former glory, but it's so crazy, it just might create a few jobs.

Step One: Fill in the war chest at the Freedom Forum. According to their 2007-08 report, the nonpartisan center focused on First Amendment issues, and media education projects received over $43 million in private giving in 2007--a 76 percent decrease and a drop in the bucket compared to the 30 percent each they received from domestic equity and hedge funds. That number has probably declined since the recession--nowhere in Econ 101 does it say that hedge funds are recession proof--meaning that the $1.1 billion in assets they enjoyed two years ago are kaput, made redundant, you get the idea. If the industry can get over its pride and hit up financiers for funding for the center, then perhaps the Freedom Forum can use the money for private grants to fund small newspapers. Just a thought.

Step Two: Take to the airwaves. Since newspapers started folding in 2008, the public perception has been that newspapers are dying--and taking the profession along with them. While it's true that interest in newsprint is waning, journalism is far from dead. Everyone from the New York Times to Rolling Stone magazine are going online--they're just not charging anyone for access to their articles. That needs to change. But first the public must be softened up--to use military jargon--and made known of the new changes. An advertising campaign on TV and radio will do the job just fine. It's expensive, no doubt, but if the New York Times buys TV slots for their ailing newspaper, the industry can buy ad slots to promote the idea of subscription-based news sites.

Step Three:
Invest in community newspapers. Once upon a time, small, independent newspapers and newsletters flourished in urban and rural locales. Many, such as I. F. Stone's I.F. Stone's Weekly, were privately funded--mostly through donations. These were the alternative presses of their day. It was only in the 1990s, as deregulation in print and cable made the environment more competitive, that organs such as the Village Voice abandoned subscription models in favor of ads. As big newspapers flounder and two paper towns become one--or more often, no paper towns--it is high time that the industry reinvest in these small time operations, through grants, if need be (see Step One). Just because they aren't household names doesn't mean they aren't good news agencies--look at the Brooklyn Daily News Web site sometime.

Step Four: Invest in our future--invest in community colleges and correspondence centers. As liberal arts majors such as journalism and communications continue to slag behind "well paying" professions like chemistry, finance and education, the profession needs to do more to get out beyond the ivory tower and recruit from the vast unwashed of our community colleges and correspondence centers. Though they might not have the same pedigree as a student from Chapel Hill or UCLA, these potential interns have something the J-school kids don't: real life experience. Many of them come from military backgrounds and law enforcement backgrounds--giving them added insight on topics like wiretapping, drug busts and a whole host of contemporary topics. Plus, you don't have to invest in a four-year education to make someone a reporter. This, by the way is how I started as an intern: I simply just waltzed into the office one day and asked if the staff at the community college I was attending needed any extra help. That was six years ago. Anyway, isn't this how Carl Bernstein got his start? And look where he's at right now.

So there you have it, my four-point plan for saving the Fourth Estate. It doesn't solve all of the industry's problems. But it sure does go a long way--and keeps the government out of the process at the same time.


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