What Golden Age? Visions Of A Quasi-Utopia

Excerpts from “Entrepreneurship and the Future of News” – Michael Schudson – Thursday at USC

[M]ost of the 40,000 or so journalists writing for daily newspapers most of the time are producing work that is routine and, more often than one would like, trivial. On the whole, so far as I can judge, journalism before the late 1960s was generally superficial, often servile, usually unambitious, narrowly focused on government, almost devoid of critical inquiry about business, inattentive to the professions, the universities, the environment, women, minorities, schools, the family. If there was a golden age of American journalism, it began around 1965-70 and lasted for a generation. There were plenty of problems with that journalism, too, but it was our best.

[…]

If “watchdog” journalism or “accountability” journalism is the center of journalistic merit, there was more of it or at the very least more of a performance of it in 2000 than in 1952. […] the virtues we prize in American journalism of investigation and skepticism are of relatively recent vintage.

[…]

[I]n 2000 there were something like 60,000 journalists employed in the newsrooms of daily newspapers and today the number is somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000. […] I’m placing my bets on low-profit and non-profit journalism, on collaborative journalism, most of it but not all of it online. Let me take as my model the online startups that already exist, from TalkingPointsMemo to ProPublica to MinnPost, VoiceofSanDiego, St. Louis Beacon, New Haven Independent, Rustwire, and many more. […] If there had been no recession and if there had been no Craigslist, newspapers would still have cut hundred and likely thousands of jobs because they could have put only the same quality product with fewer people in the newsroom.

[…]

To offer the knee-jerk and often smug assertion that any government funding for the media is the beginning of the end of press freedom requires that you ignore a great deal of the established facts of the world. You have to ignore National Public Radio and PBS. You had better ignore all of American medical and scientific research and no small part of social science research too. […] You have to ignore the federal postal subsidies to newspapers that have been instrumental from 1792 on in promoting the industry. This includes the provision, centrally important to newsgathering in the early 19th century, that newspapers could mail copies of their newspapers to other news organizations free of charge. You have to ignore the role the federal government played in financing the very first telegraph line in the country and making the Associated Press possible.

[…]

In the midst of a crisis in which talented and skillful journalists are being let go every hour, ten or a hundred amateurs replace them in minutes. I am not persuaded that this is a good trade; we lose something important when we lose the old pros. But do not make the mistake of thinking that we are gaining little by the new ways for incorporating the amateurs. There is something to be said for the wisdom of crowds, something to be said for the power of wikis, and something profound in the computer software executive’s claim that no matter how many smart people he assembles in a room for making decisions, he can be sure that the person who knows most about the topic at hand is not there. And that that person just might announce himself or herself if decision-making were done more publicly or more in a wiki format.

[…]

President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law and made a few surprisingly interesting remarks upon doing so. Not only did he harken back to the $30,000 the government provided for the first telegraph line in the country in 1844. He called for not just a broadcast system but urged the country “to build a great network for knowledge…one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.” He imagined a system in which a country doctor could get help from a distant laboratory or hospital and a scholar in Atlanta could draw instantly on a library in New York. He imagined creating an “electronic knowledge bank” and it would be not just national – it could involve other nations to “in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.” He even remembered how skeptical Henry David Thoreau had been about the telegraph and his remark that it is all very well to be constructing a telegraph to connect Maine to Texas but it could well be that Maine and Texas have nothing to communicate to each other. . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic . . . ; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Don’t be skeptical, President Johnson counsels. “I do believe that we have important things to say to one another – and we have the wisdom to match our technical genius.”

Schudson articulates my thoughts for quite a while: most of what newspapers produce is routine; the public interest journalism many of us worry about is the exception, not the norm.

I did not know that LBJ had such a vision. The more I learn about the man, the more impressed I am.

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