A Note on Joseph Torres’ “The Journalism Crash”

A recent essay by media-reformer Joseph Torres excoriates Wall Street for the toxic effects of its business model on professional journalism:

“It is true,” he notes, “that profit margins have shrunk for some media companies, and [that] the Internet has changed the public’s media habits. But most media companies remain extremely profitable, just not profitable enough to please Wall Street. (Some papers in the now-gutted Gannett chain enjoy profit margins above 40 percent.)”

It’s an important essay, though the tune is very old; that is, it’s been an issue for a long, long time, and it’s a great tragedy that it takes this kind of crisis — Chicago Tribune filing for Chapter 11, McClatchy facing a yawning credit gap — to make people pay attention.

However, as mad as folks are at big business for being profit obsessed, and at government for failing in its regulatory role, we also need to look unsparingly at what the allies of journalists have done over the past ten years to support responsible journalism for the whole polity: Not much.

People have been warning about this situation for years. For decades. News media was already in a spiral long before the Internet disintermediated the ad model. Newspaper marketshares began slumping in the ’60s!

Yet investment by philanthropic powers — and campaign/organizing support from media reformers — for and in journalism and journalists has been virtually nonexistent.

Even in the depths of the last eight years, what did we get? Legions of well-funded opinion-editorial sites by progressives for progressives.

But try to fund a general-interest, non-ideological/nonpolitical news project for an underserved community that needs a local information source reporting on the issues of their lives … I challenge you!

In all likelihood, you will fail. Without a total transformation on the part of the philanthropic sector, with an emphasis on nonpartisan journalism as social entrepreneurship, this great nation will continue to eat McNews burgers till it dies of heart failure.

If there isn’t a concerted effort to empower journalists and the communities they serve, will we have anything other than McNews + strident editorial blogs in the future? Is that a “heart healthy” diet for any democracy?

Media reform is vital. But influencing corporations and the government is only part of the solution. Journalists need your help to build NEW outlets that are detached from the corporate model, that are detached from ideological interests, that simply serve their community.

You get the journalism you pay for. Journalists are willing to work, they’re willing to innovate, they’re willing to experiment with business models … but until the media reformers and the philanthropic community treat them like full partners rather than irksome beggars who distract money and attention from influencing the latest FCC power play — well, you may as well get some fries with your McNews.

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