This is my response to Michael Schudson’s response to my criticism of his report with former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., The Reconstruction of American Journalism. I recommend reading the other links, if you haven’t yet, before reading this. Schudson is a journalism professor at Columbia University. While I encourage you to read Schudson’s response from the link above in one read, I have pasted it below. His comments are in italics, mine in regular type.
First, this was no clip job. Unless there’s something that escaped my attention, every direct quote in our report came from in-person, phone, or in a few cases e-mail interviews done over the past 7 or 8 months — except for two quotes that came from interviews Len Downie conducted a few years ago.
Buttry responds: I apologize. I was too flippant and not specific enough in calling it a clip job, especially in contrast to the reference by Columbia J-School Dean Nicholas Lemann praising “the breadth of their original research.” Originality in journalism and academia is a serious matter and I did not say or mean to imply that this was plagiarism in any respect. But there is a wide area between original research and plagiarism: rehash. And that’s what most of the first section of the Downie/Schudson report was.
I didn’t mean that I didn’t think Schudson and Downie didn’t do interviews, just that they were basically compiling lots of stuff that was out there and had been reported before. I should have acknowledged that I recognized they did some interviews. Most clip jobs include some of your own honest reporting, but it’s not very original. You plow the same ground other reporters have plowed, round up all the facts and put it in one big story. It’s like what Downie’s old paper did (probably still does, but not as often because of staff and budget cuts) all the time, swooping into another town to cover a national story that started out local, that the local media had already covered thoroughly. Yeah, they do a better overview than the local paper (which usually has done several incremental stories and not an overview), and the Post reporters do some of their own interviews. The story helps people who haven’t been watching understand, but it doesn’t tell the locals anything they didn’t already know.
Contrast that with the original reporting by Post reporters on Walter Reed Army Hospital, Blackwater or CIA secret prisons, which told us new things we didn’t know and wouldn’t have known without their ground-breaking research. As research, the informational part of the Downie/Schudson report was more like the clip job (with interviews) than the Walter Reed story. People paying attention to innovation in journalism are familiar with the stories of Talking Points Memo, San Diego News Network, the joint news venture among philanthropist Warren Hellman, public broadcasting and the University of California at Berkeley and many other examples Schudson and Downie recounted.
I should add that in my remarks characterizing the research I was more faulting Lemann’s hyperbole than Downie’s and Schudson’s research. I have written many a clip job and much of my 2008 Newspaper Next report on interactive databases for the American Press Institute was the same sort of review of well-known facts that didn’t tell people working in interactive databases much, if anything, they didn’t know. Of course, my intended audience was the executives of media companies. As Steve Outing has speculated, the primary audience for Downie and Schudson might well be foundations and philanthropists who needed a good clip job to inform them about this industry.
My elaboration here is meant for understanding, not to justify my initial flippancy. While criticism of Lemann’s hyperbole was appropriate, I should have acknowledged that Downie and Schudson conducted valid research, even though it did not break notable ground. Again, I apologize.
You obviously follow these matters very closely and may have learned little or nothing from our reporting, but we are finding many readers who say they are learning quite a lot.
Second, our focus throughout has been on strengthening what we call “accountability journalism.” We were not discussing the circulation of news from one person to another except as it incidentally related to sustaining a capacity for accountability journalism. No social media? Yes, no social media. You are correct that I am not on Facebook. No doubt I would learn something about the new social media if I were on Facebook or on Twitter. However, this would not change what we wrote.
Social media offer opportunities for citizen journalism and certainly we saw in Iran how important they can be under repressive governments at a moment of mass protest. But although this is certainly important, I do not see that it is already or will become a basis for sustaining accountability journalism.
Buttry responds: This statement reveals Schudson’s (and, I presume, Downie’s) ignorance about social media. Lots of accountability journalism involves gathering information from the public. Reporters are always going to have to do that through interviews (as well as data analysis and digging through records and other techniques). But social media provide valuable tools for accountability reporting as well. TPM’s reporting on the U.S. attorneys’ firing scandal during the Bush administration relied on crowdsourcing, and social media have tremendous potential for crowdsourcing. Accountability journalism like the annual Sunshine Week projects certainly could benefit from engaging the public using social media.
Social media can play a role in business models to support accountability journalism, in the actual gathering of information, in distributing the results of accountability reporting and in building audience for those results.
To write credibly about the future of journalism, including accountability journalism, you have to address the role of social media.
I am glad you agree that we describe a pretty robust world of online startups. Len Downie and I are enthusiastic about what we have seen in the startups. We in fact believe — I thought this was clear — that they offer great hope for the future of accountability journalism. But at this point, while they are growing, they remain small and fragile.
They are supported largely by individual philanthropists and various foundations — and philanthropists and foundations can and do change their minds about where to donate their money. We want to encourage them to keep serious journalism in mind and we see the report as an effort to do so. As you know, increasing foundation and philanthropic funding is one of our six recommendations. Encouraging universities to contribute more fully to journalism is another.
If all of our recommendations were to be adopted tomorrow, how much would the government be subsidizing the news? Would government provide 2% of all cash for the media? 5%? 10%? I don’t know but it is hard for me to imagine it would go higher than that. We picture government money as especially useful for infrastructure support for the new startups or for “old media” to develop new media capacities and collaborations over a period of years.
Any and every source of funding has the potential for corruption. Surely you are not suggesting that commercial media have been free from distorting the efforts of journalists? We think a mixed funding model offers the best hope for sustaining the quality journalism that the market is less and less able to accommodate. (If someone comes up with the perfect business model for commercial media tomorrow, we can put some of our recommendations on the shelf, and if that perfect model really will sustain accountability journalism, we would be the last to object. But we have not seen that model and we are not in a position, as those in leadership and development at commercial news organizations are, to speak with authority on which business-model suggestions are most likely to work.)
Buttry responds: I disagree strongly with this justification for the report’s scant attention to private-sector business models. Before you go to an extreme such as government-funded watchdog reporting, you need to examine the failure of the industry to innovate, possibilities for innovation and private-sector success stories. Especially given Schudson’s admission that government support at best would be a small percentage, “reconstruction” of journalism is going to depend on development of a healthy private-sector business model. So you can’t shrug off this huge hole in this report.
One of the strongest Twitter critics of the Downie/Schudson report was Howard Owens, founder and publisher of The Batavian, a profitable online-only community startup serving Batavia, N.Y. Howard is competing fiercely with the local newspaper and correctly noted the scant attention the report paid to profitable online-only startups. Howard rightly raised concerns about government subsidies hurting small independent operations. (Howard also noted factual errors in the report.)
Our recommendations are extrapolations from what we heard and saw already happening. Foundations are showing interest and growing interest in supporting news. NPR leaders are interested to expand support of local news at their member stations. Journalism schools and other units at universities (the Yale School of Forestry, for instance) are doing reporting for the general public, not just for classroom assignments.
To say that Congress will stand aside and say “yes, we want to fund local news and, no, we will never seek to pressure news organizations through our funding” would be ridiculous. We do not presume it. We presume only that there are ways — ways already in existence — that help preserve the independence of government-supported knowledge production. Does NSF work perfectly in funding the sciences and social sciences? Of course not. Is the BBC perfectly insulated from government pressure? No. Does CPB serve as an iron-clad separation between Congress and NPR or PBS? No. But do each of these institutions work pretty well, on the whole? You and I may differ on this, but I think the answer is yes.
It is very important to acknowledge that government is not a monolith and government is not unchangeable and government can innovate, too. And there are mechanisms — we suggest some of them in the report — to help insure the independence of journalism funded by government just as there are mechanisms to help insure the independence of journalism from investors, owners, and advertisers in commercial media.
Buttry responds: Here’s the thing: Science and social sciences aren’t so essential to our democracy that they were protected in the First Amendment. Just like the protection of freedom of religion required separation of church and state, protection of freedom of the press requires separation of the watchdog from the burglar. If accountability journalism is dependent for its funding on government, how vigilant will or can the watchdog be?
Our report does not imagine that the mainstream media will disappear. There are 1400 daily newspapers in the country and I would anticipate that many of them, probably most of them, will be with us for years to come. Some will invent business models that will sustain them well into the future. The people trying to make their old businesses work or trying to start up new for-profit news organizations (like the San Diego News Network that the report mentions or like the Arizona Guardian I just learned about last week) are working to invent business models and we’ll know if they succeed when they execute their plans and the result is profits.
Right now, however, the most widely employed model is for newspapers to buy out and lay off reporters – and that is no way to sustain the quality journalism our society needs.
Buttry responds: Again, thanks to Michael Schudson for this thoughtful response. Despite my criticism of their report, he and Downie have made an important contribution to the discussion of the future of journalism. I appreciate his willingness to continue that discussion here. I welcome him, Downie or you to continue the discussion in the comments or with an email to me that I might turn into another separate post.
Be sure to read Schudson’s response to this post.