I opened up a foreign local newspaper the other day to see a section front topped by this big, bold headline: “How will newspapers be saved?” No doubt you’ve seen, perhaps written, similar headlines asking the same question. The news industry – and newspapers in particular – are in a state of crisis. Newspapers that have endured all manner of troubles in the past are on life support today. Some are already dead. With increasing urgency, if not panic, the same question is being asked throughout North America: How can newspapers be saved? The trouble is: It’s the wrong question. It isn’t newspapers that need saving. It’s journalism. To put it more exactly, what needs to be preserved is the public service journalists provide by using a particular set of ethical methodologies to gather, assess and report information people need to function effectively as human beings and citizens in a free society.
Slowly, that realization is beginning to break through the public discussion about the newspaper death rattle. Paul Starr got close recently in The New Republic when he wrote that “newspapers have helped to control corrupt tendencies in both governments and business.” An article in Canada’s Globe and Mail got even closer: “If print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles – informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable? For all the wonders of online media, so far no viable substitute has emerged for the power of the press.” I believe they’re talking about journalism.
As media has evolved, journalism has been an ever decreasing component of its output. Journalism plays a dominant role in newspapers because they invented it. The rough and tumble days of fierce political debate that gave birth to the concept of freedom of the press also led to the notion of improving public discourse by using that freedom to gather, assess and report news without, as the saying goes, fear or favour.
But journalism clearly plays a very minor role in post-newspaper media systems. In most communities, newspaper journalists still do most of the legwork in gathering and assessing information. Journalists working in other media depend on the original daily reporting being done by newspapers to guide their own work. That’s why there’s a sense of panic. As some have noted, if the newspaper as a community institution withers away, the foundation upon which the modern system of journalism is built withers with it.
That is why the question is not whether newspapers can be saved. The important question is what happens to the now unbundled public-service journalism it invented? In seeking the answer, many have positioned the problem as strictly a business issue, focusing attention on alternative business models for journalism. Can we fund journalism through philanthropy or endowments? Can we develop non-profit business models? Should we be seeking government subsidies? Can we somehow leverage networks of “citizen journalists” to provide a comprehensive system of news coverage? Some are experimenting with truly original ideas, like putting story ideas up for public auction and
Many find these alternatives scary. Every one of them has detractors. We are warned philanthropists won’t support journalism unless it somehow supports their agendas. Citizen journalists lack the skills or the authority to dig into dark corners and demand accountability from the powerful. If for-profit newspapers are losing money, why should we expect non-profits to break even?
The alternative that scares Nigerian journalists the most is the idea of government funding. Obviously, government-funded journalism is not a nutty communist concept. It is true that journalists who work for government-funded news organizations may face political interference. Both the CBC and the BBC from time to time have been forced to defend themselves from unhappy governments. They’ve done so exactly the same way as newsrooms in profit-making newspapers have defended themselves from commercial interference – by insisting on governance structures that give newsrooms a critical measure of autonomy. In any case, if Nigerian journalism has demonstrated anything in the past few years, it is that rejecting government funding doesn’t guarantee journalists won’t act like government toadies.
We need to start by defining our standards and holding ourselves publicly accountable. We need to be in a position to honestly persuade citizens (and potential funders) that society needs trained professionals working full-time as public intelligence agents devoted to gathering, assessing and reporting the information people need.
We need to be able to demonstrate that journalists are trained and committed to providing effective, ethical journalism for a public purpose – even if that means we institute an effective credentialing process and subject ourselves to a system of peer review and accountability. If we do that, I believe we can save journalism.
Daurawa is a student of International Institute of Journalism, Plot 329F Hamdala Plaza, Jimmy Carter Street, Asokoro, Abuja. [email protected]