This is the weekend for horror shows and attempts to frighten each other, so it seems a good time to take another look at the status and prospects of American newspapers.
The bad news, as usual, isn’t hard to find. You may have read that the most recent audit shows that newspapers across the country have lost an average of about 11 percent of their circulation. The New York Times is offering buyouts to cut the staff by 100 or so. In Chicago, Sam Zell, the real estate magnate who bought the Tribune Co., says its bankruptcy has been his costliest business mistake ever.
Not everybody is despairing, though. Two of the heaviest hitters in journalism are out with a new report that adopts a tone you could almost mistake for optimism and that offers some novel suggestions for saving the shaky foundation of our news pyramid. The Missourian, as we’ll see, is once again ahead of the field.
The report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” appears under the auspices of the Columbia Journalism Review. You can read it for yourself. The authors are Leonard Downie Jr., retired executive editor of The Washington Post and now a professor at Arizona State University, and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a widely published scholar.
Their second paragraph sounds a note of hope: “Newspapers and television news are not going to vanish in the foreseeable future, despite frequent predictions of their imminent extinction.”
Then they ask the crucial questions that, so far, remain unanswerable. “What is going to take the place of what is being lost, and can the new array of news media report on our nation and our communities as well as – or better than – journalism has until now?”
After reciting a bit of history and examining an encouraging variety of new journalism entities – most of them online – Professors Downie and Schudson offer their own proposals for replacing or at least adding alternatives to what is pretty clearly a broken business model.
Their first idea is that Congress or the IRS should make it possible for struggling news organizations to convert to nonprofit or “Low-profit Limited Liability Corporation” status. The Missourian has led the way. It’s nonprofit both in structure and in fact, and it’s as spry a 101-year-old as you’re likely to find. You probably noticed all the awards Missourian staff won in this year’s Missouri Press Association competition – a lot more than any other Columbia newspaper.
Another idea: “Universities, both public and private, should become ongoing sources of local, state, specialized subject and accountability news reporting. ... They should operate their own news organizations. ...” Here’s the Missourian again, affiliated with and supported by our public university.
Earlier this year, Chancellor Brady Deaton and Provost Brian Foster – may their names be praised – agreed that the Missourian’s value to the university, the profession and the community warranted continuing support. So far, Missourian management is producing numbers that beat the budget. In its own modest way, the Missourian is a role model.
So, I should note, is KBIA. Downie and Schudson also argue that public radio and television stations should do a lot more local reporting. Apparently, most don’t do much. KBIA could show them how.
Go to the Columbia Journalism Review Web site and you’ll find other suggestions, but these are the most relevant to Columbia. Whether any will be adopted elsewhere, I can’t say. For the moment, our town seems uniquely privileged.
And speaking of standing alone, you may remember my foolhardy investments a while ago in newspaper stock. As of Wednesday, I’ve tripled my money; but I’m not ready to cash in yet. I think the journalistic recovery has only begun.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.