|What does the future hold? John McManus, a media professor at San Jose State University, says one positive trend is that the value of news is continuing to increase.
Our society, environment, economy and institutions are undergoing major changes due to new technologies and other forces. Knowledge remains a key to power, and its shelf life grows ever shorter. And with the global economy and global wars, we need information from even more distant places and we need updates more frequently.
It's paradoxical that the most reliable source of the information we need about technologically driven changes is becoming a victim of the very technology it covers. McManus sees a rough five to 10 years ahead as we transition to a more decentralized system of news gathering and reporting, involving information accessible on a niche basis, with micro-payments made by-the-story or through specialized subscriptions.
UC Berkeley professor Lowell Bergman believes that "sooner or later" a Bay Area Web site will emerge "where people go to find out what's going on. Something will happen, and there is no place riper than this area because it's been underserved historically."
Former San Francisco Chronicle media writer Dan Fost points to online magazines Salon and Slate (now owned by the Washington Post) as evidence that quality journalism can happen online. He thinks there is a lot of potential, but sees a conundrum: The press is mentioned and protected as an institution in the Constitution, but is run largely as a for-profit enterprise whose first interest is to make a buck for shareholders.
Fost would like to see the nonprofit world step forward, and suggests Mother Jones magazine and the Center for Investigative Reporting as examples in the Bay Area. There's risk in that model, including corporate sponsorships and attacks from the right (which Public Broadcasting has experienced), so the model is not perfect.
Fost says he hopes the Chronicle can hold on long enough to do something great online, but he's concerned about a potential spiral: cutting content, leading to fewer readers, leading to fewer ads, leading to cutting more content, and so on.
Neil Henry, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley, suggests that maybe the for-profit model for delivering news is out of date, and points to the BBC -- publicly funded serious journalism -- as a successful, different approach.
Stanford professor Ted Glasser says there are lots of people in academia who recognize the problem, but journalists are reluctant to talk about it in the context of national policy because of fear of government control.
"It's a real fear, but I don't see the state as an enemy. National Public Radio provides the best radio journalism, and we forget how well it [government funding] has worked there."
The situation demands a better, more imaginative vision than we have had, says Glasser. We need to look beyond models of market-based journalism that have defined us for the past 200 years. We need to understand journalism in the same way we define other public resources such as schools, museums or libraries. We allow librarians to make independent judgments about what books to put in a library.
It has everything to do with the news agenda and the mosaic we need in a multicultural society, Glasser says. We have to stop saying that we must accept the realities of the marketplace. Our country has the opportunity to provide a leadership role and take a serious look at alternatives to market-based journalism.
'Trust to them for light'
Thomas Jefferson believed that in a democratic society where a free and diverse press could write whatever it chose, truth would ultimately emerge from an open marketplace of ideas. This despite the fact that there would be abuses, exaggerations and inaccuracies:
"Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light."
Newsbills and various forms of print from 200 years ago were more about the content -- about conveying and advocating ideas -- than about generating profits for enormous companies. Today that model has been largely turned on its head.
Knight Ridder, the newspaper company credited with the best (perhaps the only) objective and thorough coverage leading up to the Iraq invasion, dissolved because it was a publicly held company facing pressure from a major investment company stockholder. Others are in similar circumstances. Even the New York Times, which because of its two-tier stock structure has been somewhat shielded from such pressure, faced a protest from stockholders at its annual meeting in April led by a Morgan Stanley analyst.
Daily newspapers, faced with Internet-related financial pressures, are rapidly joining electronic media and increasingly becoming small cogs in large corporations that consider news a product. This creates a formula for less meaningful news coverage and a society that is deprived of the serious, thoughtful and diverse information and views that Jefferson must have had in mind when he played a major part in crafting our democracy -- and enshrining protection for the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Free, diverse, alert and seriously engaged media can provide the information and analysis needed to avoid realizing Elbert Hubbard's view of democracy as "a form of government by popular ignorance." But for serious journalism to triumph, consumers must demand quality and be willing to pay for it.
Perhaps George Bernard Shaw's view is more appropriate: "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
For more on media consolidation, see:
Grade the News: www.gradethenews.org
Media Alliance: www.media-alliance.org
Project Censored: www.projectcensored.org
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual State of the Media report: www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/2007/sitemap.asp
Free Press: www.freepress.net/content/about
Media Reform Information Center: www.corporations.org/media
Columbia Journalism Review: www.cjr.org/tools/owners
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