How to bring journalism back to life

April 13, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

Robert McChesney and John Nichols have written an excellent new book: The Death and Life of American Journalism: the Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (2010). This book precisely articulates a litany of bad news with regard to journalism:

  • Newspapers are dying. Only 16% of young Americans read the paper. The death of newspapers has not been caused by the Internet; they been dying for two decades. They are dying because they are not exposing readers to new challenging ideas. Rather, they excel at presenting us with “weather reports, celebrity gossip, syndicated fare and exercise tips.”
  • Newspapers are dying because corporate chains gobbled them up and milk them by cutting their new status, virtually eliminating investigative journalism.
  • Modern-day journalism relies far too much on officials in power to set the agenda, thus making news cheap and bland; they explore important issues only when those in power bicker amongst themselves about those issues.
  • Because of the loss of journalists, 50% of our news is now based on press releases issued by PR specialists and uncritically repeated on the pages of America’s newspapers.

    Robert McChesney (photo by Erich Vieth)

  • Our “news” attempts to appeal to affluent consumers, the same people who would tend to respond to the advertising place by newspapers.
  • Newspapers will die and there is currently nothing to take its place on the scale that will be necessary to do the job. Internet advertising will not be sufficient for running a quality news organization; not enough people click on banner ads.

On page 81 of their book, McChesney and Nichols suggest that there are two main problems with journalism today:

a) today’s news organizations allow the people in power to define the issues to be covered by the news;

b) today’s news organizations see the world through the eyes of affluent people, those for whom the advertisements have been designed.

What is the solution? McChesney and Nichols suggest that any solution will take the form of a mosaic. It will be some combination of citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, a scattering of surviving newspapers, various nonprofit organizations and various creative approaches to providing people with quality journalism. We are ultimately going to end up with journalism that will be like “jazz,” where some news professionals will still be necessary to gather the facts (they will serve like the rhythm section of a jazz group) and citizen journalists and other “nonprofessionals” will serve as improvisers. But none of this will truly be sufficient to provide the necessary professional journalism that we will continue to need, not in the absence of serious financial support that currently doesn’t exist. We are thus entering “a dangerous period” where journalism is in major decline, and where virtually all Internet newspaper websites are money losers.

John Nichols (Photo by Erich Vieth)

The long-term solution, according to McChesney and Nichols, is to consider good journalism as a “public good.” This term refers to goods of considerable social importance which will not exist absent public support. This has historically been the case, contrary to the claims of today’s ubiquitous free-market fundamentalists.

McChesney also argues that we need journalists who function as scholars (who self-critically examine the facts) and not as lawyers (who discard facts that conflict with their favorite theory). We won’t have nearly enough of this as long as we depend on privately funded journalism.

I recently attended the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, where I attended a session featuring Robert McChesney (John Nichols was the moderator). I videotaped McChesney’s comments, and I present them below. As you can see and hear, McChesney argues that quality journalism should be seen as a public good and should also be financed as such. In the absence of this commitment, we will not have quality journalism and we will cease to have a democracy.

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Category: Journalism, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another video featuring Robert McChesney discussing many of the major problems with modern "journalism." His description of the run-up to the Iraq invasion (including Colin Powell's press conference) illustrates that when those in power set the agenda, the modern media is not willing to present dissenting voices. That is a theme that runs throughout this six minute video:

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