Monday, October 19, 2009

Downie Report: Affirmation and a Question

The forthcoming report on "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" by Len Downie and Michael Schudson offers both affirmation and a question for the nonprofit model.

First, the affirmation. In an op-ed in today's Washington Post that summarizes the report, Downie and Schudson make the following conclusion:

Accountability journalism in particular requires significant reporting resources with strong professional leadership and reliable financial support, which the marketplace no longer can be expected to sufficiently supply.

With this sentence, Downie and Schudson join the growing consensus that journalism -- the kind of accountability, watchdog and investigative reporting that helps provide checks and balances in a democracy -- has become a public good in the digital age. We all need it, but few are willing to pay for it in the form of a subscription.

So what to do?

Among other things, Downie and Schudson recommend creating a national "Fund for Local News" with fees collected by the Federal Communications Commission. I'm not so high on this idea -- I'm of the school of thought that government funding can't help but come loaded with potential for hidden political agendas and other challenges to transparency.

They also call for a more robust nonprofit sector in journalism, which they would accomplish with clearer IRS definitions for "new or existing news organizations." I'm all for this. But here's the question: What exactly is a nonprofit news organization? And who's going to tell the NRA -- the National Rifle Association or the National Restaurant Association, take your pick -- that their newsletter doesn't qualify?

This is an issue of journalistic standards, but goes quickly to the question of nonprofit governance. More and more nonprofits, both new and old, are doing journalism. Some of it is really good, and we know it when we see it. But putting a definition into the IRS code could be highly problematic.

The solution, I think, is for the broader nonprofit community to address this issue in a proactive way. Even if it can't produce a bullet-proof definition, it can identify practices and procedures that create a fairly bright line between journalism and advocacy.

At first glance, this might seem like a call to navel-gazing. But the lack of a defintion already is creating problems in areas like prize eligibilty and, more importantly, in deciding who gets access to places like the Capitol and the White House. Finding a solution sooner than later will help the nonprofit sector get past questions of legitimacy and credibility and get on to doing the kind of journalism that is most endangered in the digitial age.

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