By Michael Corcoran
March 9, 2010

There can be no denying that the state of the news media today is a full-blown crisis. Newspapers, now working with a broken economic model, are clearing out newsrooms with layoffs at a rapid rate, closing foreign and Washington bureaus, and spending less on investigative reporting. Cable news is dominated by Fox News Channel whose viewers are shown to be grossly misinformed while most TV channels focus on horserace political coverage (often with the help of corporate lobbyists serving as analysts) and trivial entertainment issues. Freelancers are paid less than ever—if at all—and prospective young journalists attending college and graduate school, while not abandoning the craft, are facing a frightening landscape to carve out careers in the field.

Often books about the state of media focus on how to tweak the economic model to save media we have. Two recently published books, however, look at ways to create media that is focused not on making journalism profitable again, but rather, on making journalism the valuable civic tool that is required for a functioning democracy.

Robert McChesney and John Nichols in The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again make the case for significant public intervention in the industry, which they argue can sustain wide-ranging, editorially independent outlets focused on producing quality journalism, not on making a profit. Meanwhile, Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke, in Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics through Networked Progressive Media, focus on sustaining and improving upon what has been a rare media bright spot in recent years: The rise of a community of progressive media outlets that have shown a remarkable ability at bringing like-minded activists and writers together to make change. While each book has a different focus, both offer bold ideas as to how media can thrive.

McChesney and Nichols’ create a great deal of controversy as they go where few media analysts are willing to go: the public sector. They propose a combination of postal subsidies, government-training of journalists, and tax subsides for families to purchase media. “The government will pay half the salary of every reporter and editor up to $45,000 each … this would cost the state $3.5 billion annually," they write. "If employment stayed at current levels it would run half that total. Newspapers that benefit from these subsidies would also be prime candidates for News AmeriCorps rookie journalists.”

For many, mentioning government and media in the same breath is a non-starter. Such a system might infringe on the ability of newspapers to attack the same government that is helping fund their operation. But McChesney and Nichols counter: Is having media owned by powerful, publicly-traded corporations (legally obligated to put to the quarterly profits of its shareholders above all else) any less unsettling? One could hardly argue that PBS, National Public Radio, and the BBC are notably less critical than CNN.

But beyond these questions, McChesney and Nichols make some persuasive arguments in favor of government intervention. They argue that the “while First Amendment prohibits state censorship,” it does not prohibit “or even discourage” the public from using the government to spawn independent media.

While many argue that the Internet is to blame, McChesney and Nichols argue, convincingly, that the industry was already in steep decline before the digital age. Media consolidation, they argue, which became rampant in the late 1970s (and got worse with the Telecommunications Act of 1996) is what led to the massive cutting of editorial expenses in the name of short-term profits. Newspaper circulation dropped 44 percent from 1947 to 1998. By the turn of century, they write, “newsrooms were already on a downward spiral of demoralization.”

Indeed, David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, gave testimony to the U.S. Senate last May arguing this case. He notes that by the time he took a buyout from the Sun in 1995, newspapers had already begun the cycle of sacrificing journalism in the name of profits before their circulation and ad revenue numbers were suffering. “In short, my industry butchered itself, and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered free market logic that has proven so disastrous for so many American industries,” Simon testified.

The belief that it is the Internet—not mismanagement—that caused media decline has some proposing solutions that do not free media from the grasp of corporate ownership, but instead focus out how to create more revenue on the Web via advertising, micropayments, or paywalls. But if history is any guide, these companies will still sacrifice quality journalism in the name of profit. The Internet has merely accelerated this decline.

The solutions proposed by McChesney and Nichols are bold and worth taking seriously. But one wonders if they will be. Congress, given current deadlocks, seem unlikely to make such a radical change. For such a media revolution to occur it would require a massive grassroots effort by the public who would face staunch opposition in Washington to a government intervention on the scale proposed here.

Van Slyke and Clark, however, want to encourage a recent trend of loosely connected of progressive organizations and individuals that have pushed for change in a platform that lowers barriers for information distribution. The success of progressive websites and organizations in organizing for the 2006 and 2008 elections as has been undeniable.

Likewise, the author’s note, progressive media outlets and blogs have broken key stories in recent years. Robert Greenwald, director of “Iraq for Sale: the War Profiteers” and Jeremy Scahill, who has been covering the rise of private military contractors for years, recently testified before Congress on the role of private companies in Iraq.

Indeed, progressive journalists and bloggers have had numerous success stories in recent years. Talking Points Memo broke open the Bush Administration’s politicization of the justice department and FiredogLake revealed MIT’s Jonathan Gruber’s financial ties to the executive branch, prompting the Times’ ombudsman to address the issue in an op-ed. Blogs like Dailykos and FiredogLake have raised millions for progressive candidates and spearheaded previously unknown politicians like Ned Lamont into national icons.

Echo Chamber focuses on a number of these case studies to see what methods of online organizing work, and how to emulate and improve them. They argue there is a need for increased collaboration among organizations and individuals within the network and constant adaptation to new technologies, such as iPhones and Twitter.

While McChesney and Nichols propose alternate revenue streams, Van Slyke and Clark instead propose a more effective, partisan progressive network that can bring about change. The outlets within these groups have no pretense of objectivity and argue for specific causes and candidates. ”Journalists, do not be afraid to pick a side on an issue and champion it,” they write.

But while progressive media has seen change from their reporting, these outlets often rely on the work of volunteers or low-paid freelancers and measure success in different ways. These outlets want to make political change rather than grow or earn profits. But Nichols and McChesney believe quality journalism requires paid labor and the opportunity for reporters to spend weeks and months on a single story.

Further, much of the progressive media network is focused on electoral politics. They do not tend to send reporters to the West Bank or Haiti to cover major world issues, mostly because they can’t afford to on their relatively shoestring and reader-supported budgets.

In an ideal world the future will bring about both a renewed emphasis on quality reporting and a strong progressive network that can counter what is a very organized and well-funded right-wing media infrastructure. Though neither of these books offers a magic solution to the problems facing the industry, they do tap into what is often lost in the midst of all the deeply troubling trends that have burdened the American media. The media crisis we face brings with it tremendous (if deeply challenging) opportunities to revolutionize the industry in this country for the better. In 20 years media will be radically different than it is today. Just as today’s young people have the most at stake in this transformation, so too will they have the biggest role in shaping the future of media.

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