Along with just about everyone else who cares about journalism, I like to think of it as a public good. On this I base the claim that we should worry and think about the decline of newspapers as the biggest employers of journalists.

The idea of journalism as a public good is what has led the French Government to support that country’s newspapers. It is also why all those universities and charitable trusts in the USA are backing experiments in making good journalism sustainable.

Locally, the idea of journalism as a public good is what drives our media organisations in their founding and support for the Right to Know campaign, although I won’t be the first to point out that there is self interest involved as well.

It’s not hard to persist in the assumption that journalists are good things, even if it does involve overlookin or forgiving gross abuses of media power. In recent months I have taken pleasure in observing how The Age, despite all the troubles at Fairfax, is still dishing up some gutsy investigative yarns. All credit to those involved, and those who support them.

But sometimes you need a reality check. And there are good reasons why most people think the newspaper emperor is a tad underclothed.

Have a look at this post on the US based Xark blog . It scores a number of direct hits. Although it concerns the American scene, these are questions we will have to confront in Australia if we want to convince people that journalism actually matters.

Here are some edited highlights:

Watchdogging government is hardly the primary purpose of modern newspapers (it doesn’t even make the Top Three in most outfits), and if Watchdogging ever interferes with Job No. 1 (generating double-digit profit margins for shareholders), Watchdogging is right out;

And an uncomfortable one for both News Limited and Fairfax:

Newspaper companies and media corporations are run not by civic-minded saints, but by business people. And while they love looking into other people’s business, they don’t like anybody looking into theirs. If you run for public office, you’re expected to reveal your financial interests, but buy a newspaper and you can shape public opinion for years without ever having to reveal much of anything.

But what about the “newsroom firewall,” that oft-touted invisible fortress that protects the news judgment of top editors from the economic interests of the company? Might as well call it a Maginot Line. Does anybody seriously believe that editors who refuse to adopt the personality and concerns of top management are likely to reach and remain in top newsroom jobs? Even the best top editors exist in a hellish realm of compromise between their public-minded mission and the “bottom-line realities” of for-profit newspapering. Color me snobbish, but I like my watchdogs to live by the same rules they apply to others. Call it a quirk.

And one for every editor I have ever known, and every news conference I have ever sat in on:

Your local city council is required to let the public witness all its decisions. What about your local newspaper? Are interest groups allowed to sit in on afternoon budget meetings? Are news decision-makers required to release their notes and e-mails that relate to why they promoted one angle but spiked another?

Editors understand that they take heat sometimes for the stories they publish. The last thing they want is heat for the stories they didn’t publish, or a pubic accounting of the decisions that lead up to framing stories in a particular way.

The conclusion:

Today’s mediascape is a remnant of a collapsing 20th century system in which most of the journalistic infrastructure belonged to newspapers. Their current argument for their social value oozes irony because it reverses the way newspapers have valued themselves for a generation — not for their civic-mindedness, but for their bottom line. And if that bottom line is less than 20 percent profit, you can bet they’re laying off reporters, not offering stockholders smaller dividend payments.

Somebody should investigate that.

All of which adds up, surely, to a realisation that if we want to continue to believe that journalism is important, and particularly if we want other people to care about its future, then the way we do it is going to have to change quite radically.

So how should it change? New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen outlines the problem well, then suggests some new ways of thinking, in this post on his Pressthink blog.

Rosen outlines several possible new ways (and some of them are in fact old ways, dating from before modern media) in which the collection and dissemination of news might be supported, including:

  • The private collection of news, in which individuals directly commission correspondents;
  • new economies of news, including:
  1. wealthy individuals supporting investigative work (and not celebrity gossip, entertainment etc) because it is a public good;
  2. Niche publications serving highly specialised audiences with content of intense interest to them

Rosen also has stuff to say about advertising, and how it, too, is going to have to change, which is why it can’t be relied upon to fund journalism as it has in the past.

Says Rosen:: “We need to try all routes: for-profit and non-profit; amateur, pro and pro-am; market-driven, subsidized.”

Those who heard Rosen address the Future of Journalism conference organised by the MEAA in Sydney last year will remember his beautiful migration metaphor.

We are all going to have to leave the old country, and seek our future in the new. Not all of the boats we push out will make it across the ocean, so we must make sure that we launch a lot of them. When we get to the new country we will find that others are there before us. We will no longer have exclusive claim to the territory. Like all migrants, we will have to work out how many of our old traditions and habits are still relevant and useful, and how many we will need to abandon.

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