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Saving journalism must also save an audience that doesn’t give a damn

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Every 10 minutes, it seems, somebody dredges up from the miasma of past moribund media strategies the idea that will save journalism. But such ideas are too often about saving the business of journalism — and that’s a much different conundrum to consider than what truly ails the fractured relationship between journalism and democracy.

As for saving journalism? There’s government funding and/or “non-market” money or government dictation of funding mechanisms. How about computer nerds or “hacker journalists,” “personalized news,” the Federal Trade Commission’s “recommendations” for the reinvention of journalism, or a mashup of government subsidy, community ownership of local news outlets, and non-traditional or non-profit support for journalism outlets? Just Google “save journalism.” All the ideas are there, from the hackneyed to the improbable to the Are you effing kidding me?

Now, adding to the mix, backers of the Knight Foundation, in their infinite wisdom, have published an “An Open Letter to America’s University Presidents” with a blunt message regarding their journalism programs: Change or die (because as grant-making institutions, we won’t fund you if you don’t change).

But this Knight entreaty, like too many saving journalism proposals, inadequately addresses a far more important civic consideration.

In their letter, which advocates a “teaching hospital” model for journalism education, the signees say J schools have made significant but insufficient preparation for the digital age. And that observation is coupled with a threat:

Schools that do not update their curriculum and upgrade their faculties to reflect the profoundly different digital age of communication will find it difficult to raise money from foundations interested in the future of news. The same message applies to administrators who acquiesce to regional accrediting agencies that want terminal degrees as teaching credentials with little regard to competence as the primary concern. [emphasis added]

The letter notes (and supports) the desire of the principal accrediting body of journalism schools for modernized programs. Such programs should “spotlight the importance of technology and innovation” and produce graduates with “the ability to pursue career paths as journalist-entrepreneurs or journalism-technologists.”

Fine. But those career paths seem to be about the saving the business of journalism. That, of course, is necessary: no revenue begets no production of news or “content” begets no readers or viewers.

Journalism’s role in a functioning democracy, as advocated by the Founders, has always been predicated on a press that makes money to effectively function. The press is the only industry granted protection against government interference. That’s the deal inherent in the First Amendment: Make money, yes, but you are obligated to hold government accountable. (Add multinational corporations: Governments have become wholly owned subsidiaries of large corporations.)

In this digital era, accountability journalism (ensuring government deals forthrightly with its citizens and spends their tax dollars with care) has suffered because of attrition in the industry’s ability to hold government (and multinational corporations) accountable.

As I’ve written recently:

Finding a word or phrase that describes the journalism industry today is not that difficult. Since 2007, contraction — some big newspapers folded and suits fired tens of thousands of journalists — describes well the process. The result? A free fall to obscurity, a corporate-led collapse into irrelevance fit.

Accountability journalism is populated by fewer reporters working more hours on more stories produced on right now deadlines for less money. In politics, at least one observer — PressThink blogger and prof Jay Rosen — concludes accountability journalism in politics has hit a new low.

Saving the business of journalism is not necessarily saving journalism. Few industry leaders speak primarily of news on websites anymore; providing consistent and timely content — i.e., post it right now — is what matters to the corporate managers. The will of industry managers to invest in accountability journalism — what citizens need to know — has, perhaps, atrophied beyond revival.

And you know it’s true: What do you see, hear, and read on “news” websites? Aggregation sites? Twitter? Facebook? Buzzfeed? Gawker? Drudge? Do you see content news bearing significant, in-depth examination of national, regional, or local problems and priorities? Do you see accounts of planning board, school board, and city council meetings? Do you learn whether the cousin of a city official quietly got the contract for winter road salt without a bid? Have you been told of the factors in city governance that are driving up your property taxes unnecessarily?

Not so much, eh? But you find plenty of sports, entertainment news, “health and fitness” news, personal finance advice, and so on. There’s the old saw, of course, that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” But I’d argue that the public’s interest is what the public as been induced or trained to be interested in. After all, media theorists might argue, the press can’t tell the public what to think but it can certainly tell it what to think about. And in the digital age, it’s pablum.

The business of journalism is increasingly engaged, I believe, in telling readers and viewers what they want to know. The media business, of course, has always depended on an entertainment value to produce the revenue that allows journalists to produce the democratic value — what readers and viewers need to know. But until the arrival of the digital age (and how the hell is that defined, anyhow?), the balance between the two seemed a workable compromise for that First Amendment protection. Papers made money; the citizenry received a sufficient entertainment fix as well as the accountability journalism that editors adjudged necessary for readers to know to make astute political and consumer decisions.

What citizens need to know …Well, that will now play a far lesser role in saving the journalism business than the rapidly increasing digital provision of pablum. Opiate of the masses will prevail. Even in this digital era, with journalism entrepreneurs and technologists aplenty spilling out of journalism programs, mass communication of crap disguised as content will likely prevail. The targeted communication of social and digital media has not driven out the power of mass mediated messages: Just ask Mitt and Barack, who are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on mass broadcast ads as well as narrowcasting online.

But is the audience waning in its intellectual ability to recognize the kind of information it needs to properly function in real life? Or has it been iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned to a stupor? News organizations gave away their product for free to this audience for well more than a decade. Now that paywalls are popping up everywhere, the audience expects more: If we’re paying now, we expect a much better show.

That show is overshadowing three fundamental questions journalists should seek to address for the inhabitants of a modern democracy:

• How does the world work?
• Why does it work that way?
• What are the consequences?

But readers and viewers, I fear, have been conditioned to seek material requiring less intellectual strain. The modern audience of news media is uninterested in, bored by, unable to understand, or too damn busy to grasp accountability journalism and its importance. That audience shortcoming is beyond the scope of journalism schools to address in their curricula, foundation threats to withhold funding notwithstanding. None of these saving-journalism ideas matters if the audience remains in this condition of insensibility.

Similarly, those who view journalism as public service have difficulties persuading a dumbed-down or tuned-out audience that accountability journalism has value. That’s because such an audience has been conditioned to assign value with dollars, not moral imperatives. They cannot monetize what they need to know. As one of my S&R colleagues told me:

All that matters is want because want is what people pay for, and if nobody will pay for [need], it is by definition of no value because there is no means for assessing value except money.

Another of my S&R colleagues described the American citizenry as, in a word, cowed:

We have an ignorant, misinformed and frightened populace who are susceptible to cynical manipulation.

That cynical manipulation is what you’re likely to witness as savior of the journalism business. No “modernization” of university journalism programs will be able to forestall that.

Any proposal to save the business of journalism must also address the democratic imperative of public service handed to the press by the First Amendment. And it must convince an insensate (at best) or anti-intellectual (at worst) audience that effective citizenship requires a far greater engagement with the often messy machinery of democracy.

Only then will that audience appreciate what journalism as public service can do for it. And then pay for it.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 7, 2012 at 11:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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