Whither Journalism? Part I

As evidenced by recent hearings in the House and Senate, the future of journalism is attracting a lot of attention these days.  And why not?  Hardly a week goes by without news of the shutdown, bankruptcy reorganization, or downsizing of a daily newspaper somewhere.  And pretty much everyone seems to agree that newspapers are the “gold standard” among journalism organizations.

Journalists themselves have been dedicating large quantities of ink to the subject.  But like the witnesses at the congressional hearings, the prescriptions of journalists are as notable for what they don’t recommend as for what they do.

Actually, journalists aren’t recommending much of anything.  For the most part they content themselves with finger-wagging diatribes under headlines that read like draft obituaries.  Stories, for instance, like Howard Kurtz’s in the Washington Post (The Death of Print?) in which it’s argued that the blame belongs with the Internet and unimaginative and slow-footed management.  Or Frank Rich in the New York Times (The American Press on Suicide Watch), whose villain is an ungrateful public which “thinks nothing of spending money for texting or pornography” but is unwilling to shell out for … the opinions of Frank Rich?

And then, of course, there are the ideological opportunists, like John Nichols of The Nation (David Simon, Arianna Huffington and the Future of Journalism) who, true to his “class warrior” conceits, sums things up this way: “There will be time for the debate about solutions.  For now, it is not just useful but necessary to be clear about the cause of the crisis in journalism….  It wasn’t the Internet.  It wasn’t the current economic downturn.  It was a lousy ownership model that saw civic and democratic values replaced by the rapacious greed and commercial calculations of big media companies.”

Well, enough of this.  Let’s consider some solutions, and one very bad idea that is being offered up as a solution.

To take the bad idea first, the granting of nonprofit status to newspaper publishers makes no sense from either a journalistic or a business point of view.  Looked at journalistically, such a development would lead inexorably to challenges of these companies’ nonprofit status by governmental or private parties who would allege political partisanship.  Sooner or later these challenges would find traction, either in the courts, Congress, or in media boardrooms, thereby compromising the papers’ very reason for being.

As a business proposition, nonprofit status seems even more bizarre.  After all, the papers that are most notably failing today aren’t the work of mom-and-pop organizations.  They’re the products of the biggest companies in the industry, like Hearst, McClatchy, Gannett, and the Tribune Company — all of which are not only private, for-profit companies, but publicly owned companies (save for Tribune) at that.  How would the shareholders (or creditors) of any of them fare in such an arrangement?