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Finding a new model for news reporting

By Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson
Monday, October 19, 2009

News reporting that holds accountable those with power and influence has been a vital part of American democratic life, especially in places with daily newspapers profitable enough, and with owners public-spirited enough, to maintain substantial reporting staffs. That journalism is now at risk, along with the advertising-supported economic foundations of newspapers.

American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting -- as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy. It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including print newspapers. What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.

We do not believe newspapers are going to disappear in print or online anytime soon. But they will have much smaller reporting staffs and play diminished roles. At the same time, the Internet has enabled new ways to gather and distribute news that make possible a reconstruction of American journalism.

Journalists leaving newspapers have started online local news sites in many cities and towns. Others have started nonprofit local investigative reporting projects and community news services at nearby universities, as well as national and statewide nonprofit investigative reporting organizations. Still others are working with local residents to produce neighborhood news blogs. Newspapers themselves are collaborating with other news media, including some of the startups and bloggers, to supplement their smaller reporting staffs.

The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers but also freelancers, university faculty and students, bloggers and citizens armed with smart phones. Financial support for news reporting now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers but also from foundations, philanthropists, universities and citizen donors.

This emerging journalistic ecosystem, in which the gathering and distribution of news is becoming much more widely dispersed, holds great potential. But it is still quite fragile. Accountability journalism in particular requires significant reporting resources with strong professional leadership and reliable financial support, which the marketplace can no longer be expected to sufficiently supply.

Rather than depending primarily on shrinking newspapers, communities should have a range of diverse sources of news reporting. They should include commercial and nonprofit news organizations that can both compete and collaborate with one another, adapting traditional journalistic forms to the multimedia, interactive capabilities of digital communication. In a comprehensive report commissioned by the Columbia University Journalism School, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," to be published this week, we suggest a number of public sources of support for this news reporting:

-- The Internal Revenue Service or Congress should clarify tax regulations to explicitly allow new or existing local news organizations to operate as nonprofit or low-profit entities, allowing them to receive tax-deductible donations, along with advertising revenue and other income.

-- Philanthropists and foundations should substantially increase support for local news reporting -- at both commercial and nonprofit organizations -- to levels they provide for arts, cultural and educational institutions.

-- Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented, through action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations -- reporting that too few of them do now.

-- Universities and colleges should become institutional sources of local, state and accountability news reporting, following the lead of pioneering journalism schools whose faculty and student journalists staff community news and investigative reporting Web sites.

-- A national Fund for Local News should be created with fees the Federal Communications Commission collects from or could impose on telecom users, broadcast licensees or Internet service providers. Grants should be made competitively by independent state Local News Fund Councils to local news organizations for innovations in local news reporting and ways to support it.

-- Governments, nonprofit organizations and journalists should increase the accessibility and usefulness of public information collected by federal, state and local governments, taking advantage of digital tools to analyze and use it for news reporting.

These are reasonable and achievable measures. They require only leadership in journalism, philanthropy, higher education, government and the rest of society to seize this moment of challenging changes and new beginnings in the media to ensure the future of news reporting.

Leonard Downie Jr. is vice president at large and former executive editor of The Washington Post and professor of journalism at Arizona State University. Michael Schudson is professor of communication at Columbia University's School of Journalism. The full report on which this article is based will be available starting Tuesday at http://www.columbiajournalismreport.org and at http://www.cjr.org.

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