Nicholas Lemann’s opening talk at The Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies

– – – warning! this is just my rough summary, not a transcript, and I have undoubtedly missed some things and misrepresented others  – – –

Lemann started out by highlighting the particular way in which journalism education has been institutionalized in the United States, pointing out that there are only few professional schools of journalism located at research universities (he highlighted Columbia, Berkeley, and CUNY), while most journalism education takes place in undergraduate programs in ‘journalism and mass communication’ at large state universities, programs largely staffed by former professionals and oriented towards employment beyond the profession of journalism itself and in a wide range of communications-related fields such as public relations and advertisement.

He argued that his has contributed to the mutual suspicion between professional journalists and communications researchers. The journalists see the researchers not only as highly critical of their profession, but also as engaged in education students in fields that many journalists think of as fundamentally different from their own–i.e. PR and advertisement. Whereas communications scholars might think of journalists as simply one form of content production (and managers in media companies too!), journalists think of themselves as what Lemann calls “applied epistemologists”, people interested in finding out the truth of a situation and reporting it, and thus specifically not as engaged in the strategic, instrumental communication that marketers and politicians employ.

Lemann went on to point out that this particular subset of journalism, the part that corresponds more or less to the description he had offered as applied epistemologists seeking truth through reporting and trying to convey it to broad public audiences in print or what not, is in, and I quote “existential danger” today.

He said that the changing information environment has meant that many of the sources of information that the main institutions hosting professional journalism in most of the 20th century, the large newspaper, made most of its money off–useful information like movie schedules, classifieds, and TV programs–are now easily available elsewhere, and much of the news and opinion material that was produced by journalists and came with it is available for free online (and sometimes in free newspapers too).

In terms of the opinion side of this, he said he wasn’t too worried. Opinion, criticism, and debate had, arguably, he said, thrived more online than it ever did offline.

What was really worrying, he said, was that the traditional economic basis for the basic work of reporting, the gathering of facts, basic analysis of them, and the conveying of them to wide audiences, is gone.

The various functions that had been bundled in the 20th century newspaper, with some functions (classifieds) subsidizing others (the newsroom), and their combination and the local information monopoly that many regional and metropolitan newspapers enjoyed for a while, is being disaggregated. Craigslist takes the classifieds, Monster.com the job postings, and so on. Leaving the news alone, and when the news is free online and attracts too few eyeballs to survive only on advertisement, basic newsgathering journalistic reporting runs into a problem.

First, the media conglomerates started cutting down on their foreign bureaus and their D.C. bureaus. That may not be so worrying. Plenty of other outlets continue to cover major world powers and what goes on in Washington. But now, the metropolitan bureaus are also being cut, and many large American cities may face a future without a local newspaper (Detroit springs to mind).

Lemann said that this is probably largely inconsequential for the issue that communications researchers have historically cared the most about, namely enhancing civic life and public debate, making it more inclusive and so on, since all this is probably served quite well by a transition to an Internet-enhanced communications environment. And he applauded that development. But, he underlined, he was not persuaded that these civic groups and volunteer associations and individual bloggers and citizen journalists could fill the vacuum that the shutting of metropolitan bureaus leave behind. He thought that basic reporting about public affairs would suffer greatly.

He ended by offering three avenues that should be explored by people wanting to do something to save the reporting dimension of professional journalism that he said was in existential danger. He reiterated that this was not about saving the media industry or particular organizations like newspapers, but that he wanted to alert people to the fact that unless something was done, the fall of these organizations might well take the underpinnings of a hole aspect of the journalistic profession with them. His four things, non-exclusive, obviously, were:

(1) Experiment with micropayment and other ways of reintroducing an element of customer contribution to newsgathering. Think WSJ.com.

(2) Explore non-profit involvement. Think ProPublica as an example of this, an endowment-funded news organizations without their own outlet, sharing their stories with partner media.

(3) Public sector involvement.Direct or indirect government subsidies.

He ended up by saying that he knew the last option was wildly controversial in the United States, and often rejected out of hand as journalism caving in to and becoming dependent upon government. He said that while there are forms of public subsidy that entail that danger, there are others that minimize it, and his finishing point was that any kind of income source comes with strings attached, and the central challenge for a profession and particular organization that wants to maximize its autonomy and independence is to try to balance different income sources so as to not become dependent on any one in particular.

– – –

We had very little time to discuss his opening comments, which were anyway in line with parts of Paul Starr’s argument in the next session, so they were sort of covered there. One objection raised primarily by Eric Klinenberg from NYU was that Lemann’s distinction between journalism and the organizations it exists in is problematic, and that a large part of the predicament that the news industry find itself in today arise out of the imperial aspirations of conglomerates that accumulated massive debt in their attempt to expand their reach (The Tribune Company and Gannett being two examples).

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