Thursday, April 23, 2009

Keeping Genuine Journalism Alive

One of the great criticisms of the nonprofit model is that it doesn’t provide a long-term answer to the demise of newspapers as sources of credible information. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to.

While the idea of nonprofit journalism may be new even to many journalists, some smart people who have been studying it for some time believe the goal really is to preserve journalism until a viable for-profit model emerges - whenever that might be.

Phil Meyer of UNC-Chapel Hill, articulated this idea five years ago in a forward-looking essay for Columbia Journalism Review entitled “Saving Journalism” in which he suggests the nonprofit model as a means to “keep genuine journalism alive.”

If we are to preserve journalism and its social-service functions, maybe we would be wise not to focus too much on traditional media. The death spiral might be irreversible. We should look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today.

Notably, Meyer’s piece also talks about other avenues, including certification of journalists to help readers sort though the heaps of misinformation available in the online age.

Certification is a form of communication. It tells employers and consumers alike that a practitioner has attained a minimum level of competence in some specialized field. In television, it has already become common for weather reporters to be certified by the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association…. Certification would never, of course, be a prerequisite for practicing in a field, just as an accountant need not be a CPA to advise you on your income tax. But it is information worth having when you decide whom to listen to.

Fast-forward to 2009, and we see the essence of both ideas being put into practice among some of the startups. In creating Kaiser Health News, the Kaiser Family Foundation saw a “window of opportunity” to preserve quality journalism by hiring reporters with years of experience in covering health care, said Matt James, senior vice president. As newspapers and other mainstream media shed jobs, many reporters are moving to other professions so that society no longer benefits from their experience. Kaiser isn’t wading into the certification debate, but its goal is the same – maintaining a high standard for an important journalism specialty.

At the risk of making a long post longer, it’s worth noting Meyer’s answer to the nagging question: Why do newspapers continue to cut newsroom jobs when journalistic quality is their main value proposition? Meyer draws from Harvard Business professor Michael Porter in labeling the strategy a “last-resort business model for companies undermined by substitute technology.”

He (Porter) calls it "harvesting market position." Managers do it by raising prices and reducing quality so they can shell out the money and run. I know of no newspaper companies that are doing this consciously, but the behavior of most points in this direction: smaller newshole, lighter staffing, and reduced community service, leading, of course, to fading readership, declining circulation, and lost advertising. Plot it on a graph, and it looks like a death spiral.

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