Don’t blame the Internet: Reevaluating the decline in American journalism

By Rachael Liberman

In a recent article from The Nation, heavyweight media scholars John Nichols and Robert McChesney remind readers that the current crisis in American journalism does not necessarily mean that the industry is fated to fail. Rather, Nichols and McChesney optimistically open the article with the news that the Federal Trade Commission is planning to hold (they are holding it right now) a hearing to “assess the radical downsizing and outright elimination of newspaper newsrooms and to consider public-policy measures that might arrest a precipitous collapse in reporting and editing of news.” Additionally, they note that the Federal Communications Commission “is also launching an extraordinary review of the state of journalism.” With these unprecedented actions slated to take place, it would appear that journalism is on the road to recovery. Receiving support from national organizations, after years of monetary losses and the decline of social impact, would work to restore journalism in both the private and public sphere. Unfortunately, Nichols and McChesney do not foresee the FTC or the FCC action as the answer to the journalism industry’s crisis. Rather, they see their approach, which uses the Internet as the catchall scapegoat, as counter-productive and derailing a larger issue. They write, “Now for the bad news: the way the challenges facing journalism are being discussed, indeed the way the crisis is being framed, will make it tough for even the most sincere policy-makers to offer a viable answer to it.”

This frame that Nichols and McChesney make reference to is that the journalism industry is suffering due to the rise of the “Internet Age.” The problem is that if both federal agencies base their recovery plan on the Internet, there will be considerable oversight regarding the underlying catalyst: the increase in commercial interest and the decline in democratic interest. They write, “The decline of commercial journalism predates the web. Newsrooms began to give up on maintaining staffs sufficient to cover their communities – effectively reducing the number of reporters relative to the overall population – in the 1980s.” This reduction in staff allowed for increased profits at the expense of hard-hitting news (which was being replaced by sensationalism and press releases). However, while Nichols and McChesney do recognize the impact of the Internet, they maintain that its impact has been “to accelerate and make irreversible a process that began before the digital age.”

In the end, Nichols and McChesney urge policymakers to abandon the notion that the journalism industry will be as profitable as it once was. Rather, due to the rise of the Internet, the landscape has changed, and the focus should return to promoting information and democracy, which at this point will require subsidies from the government. Journalism should not be equated to commercial value; rather, it should represent a tool for an informed public. Focusing on the Internet will derail the urgent conversation that needs to take place: democracy over profits. Nichols and McChesney write: “Today, as in the early Republic, our system of government cannot succeed and our individual freedoms cannot survive without and informed, participating citizenry, and that requires competitive, independent news media. For that to happen, the FTC, the FCC and Congress must stop blaming the Internet and start thinking about how enlightened subsidies could revitalize the very necessary public good that is journalism.”

While this article, titled “How to Save Journalism,” is a much-needed call to reorient the journalism crisis from commercial interest to democracy, it still puts the fate of the industry in the hands of government agencies. What can we do? Should we write letters to Congress? When and where is the FTC hearing? Can the public attend? Nichols and McChesney are successful in critiquing the government’s approach to this issue, but they fail to follow up with how citizens can provide additional support. If democracy is fundamental reason for supporting journalism, isn’t the public essential for its revival?

The Guardian – US Government Discusses the Future of Journalism

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17 thoughts on “Don’t blame the Internet: Reevaluating the decline in American journalism

  1. Blame the ultra left wing bias that our popular media takes on courtesy morally/ethically white washed schools. My public school and university repeatedly punished me for citing in papers events and best selling book of all time each of which has had possibly the biggest influence on our world culture. Why would I read the local paper to have more of reality dismissed as joke ?

  2. Fabulous fabulous post! You are pointing out a key issue in the future of both government and the media.

    I am scratching my head about Nichols and McChesney’s argument that government funding can maintain a competitive, independent media. But there are surely other ways that the media is already not sufficiently independent.

    Keri

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  4. Recovery? Why would journalism need to recover? As a journalist myself, I believe the career field is always moving forward!

    The fact that print media is outdated and fading is not a negative factor, but an incredibly positive one. To transition to an internet-based publication is financially smarter, and it attracts a wider variety of readers. How in the world is this negative?

    And with staff members freed up from that awful pink elephant that is layout and design, more stories and photos can be published. And the timeliness of an online publication is unbeatable. It adds to credibility.

    Also, this frees up time for blogging, which has quickly become one of the must trusted and widely-used sources of news. People don’t want to read formal statements, they want opinions and personable sources. They’d trust a user review over a magazine review any day.

    And please let me know how this is negative? This is a forward movement not only for technology but for how we as journalists reach the public. It also places the ability to become a journalist in the hands of the everyday person. All you need is a cameraphone that connects to the internet. You take a photo, post a blog and bam! You’ve got the potential [depending on readership & who actually wants to listen to you] to be a journalist.

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  6. It’s about time someone said it. After all, when moving pictures came out, theater survived. Television didn’t kill movies. And considering the number of channels on cable and satellite TV, the internet didn’t kill it. Radio’s been around trumping newspapers with the paperless, free, instant breaking story for 80 years already. But radio didn’t kill the papers.

    Go to your library, grab a microfilm from the newspaper morgue, and look up an edition pre 1980. Then look at one today. The difference in reporting is astonishing.

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  9. Yes, the public is essential to its revival. I think journalism is moving towards a very interesting era. I continue to wonder if journalism’s entanglement with the internet is going to destroy professional journalism and lower the standards and power of the written word…

    great article.

    -Sadie

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  12. @Megan… You said… “Seriously? When has inserting a governmental body into a private enterprise ever helped? Anyone? Bueller? ”

    Over the past 100 years, government regulation and subsidies into the private sector have consistently helped more than hurt. FDR and the New Deal was considered borderline socialism in its time, but moved the US out of the Great Depression with “ultra-liberal” concepts like a minimum wage and child labor laws.

    To this day, government subsidizes part of every piece of food you eat to ensure that food producers yield enough crop to sustain their business.

    Those are just a couple examples. Do you want more?

    @realtynetworth… If you truly still think that the popular media takes a far left slant, you are either delusional, or have your head so far up the Bible that you can’t see straight to read it properly any longer. Jesus was a liberal… a HUGE liberal.

    Your public school and university probably punished you more for terrible grammar than your citations of the Bible, but even so, the separation of Church and State was an idea created by some pretty religious folk.

    Your post had so little to do with the article that I feel as if you just scour the internet for sociology articles and start babbling about the evil liberal media. Am I right?

  13. @LillithKane… Thanks for your insights as a journalist yourself. As I come from the business side of media, I would say you missed one thing… “revenue stream.” The internet media model just hasn’t figured it out yet. Increasingly less people are willing to pay for news and/or entertainment, and I think THAT, at least for now, is the one “negative” you were searching for.

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  15. Two things:

    1.) We probably ought to clarify and substantiate whether the problem is a decrease in quantity of publication, quality, or both. I think it would be hard to make the case that quantity is a problem given the endless number of blogs – many of them worth reading. As far as quality is concerned, let’s face it. So much of the media has been concerned for so long with regurgitating press releases, wire reports, and talking points that the loss of these jobs isn’t too dismaying. Also, consider the reportage Twitter facilitated during the Iranian election. These tweets became the primary sources for all the mainstream media coverage. Not that blogs can substitute for the New York Times. Its complicated, not a linear narrative of decline.

    2.) How can democracy be the solution when it’s the problem? That is, greater equality in access to the mean of reporting and publication as well as greater equality in access to journalistic publications is what has problematized the old forms of media. Precisely what differentiates new media from old media is the former’s more democratic nature. Frankly, I don’t believe for-profit media is sustainable (at least for more than the most venerable institutions). I offer an alternative solution, the NPR and BBC model, in my own post: http://sociologycompass.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/out-of-print-prosumption-and-the-triumph-of-new-media/

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