Don't blame the Internet: Reevaluating the decline in American journalism
In a recent article from The Nation, heavyweight media scholars John Nichols and Robert McChesney remind readers that the current crisis in American journalism does not necessarily mean that the industry is fated to fail. Rather, Nichols and McChesney optimistically open the article with the news that the Federal Trade Commission is planning to hold (they are holding it right now) a hearing to “assess the radical downsizing and outright elimination of newspaper newsrooms and to consider public-policy measures that might arrest a precipitous collapse in reporting and editing of news.” Additionally, they note that the Federal Communications Commission “is also launching an extraordinary review of the state of journalism.” With these unprecedented actions slated to take place, it would appear that journalism is on the road to recovery. Receiving support from national organizations, after years of monetary losses and the decline of social impact, would work to restore journalism in both the private and public sphere. Unfortunately, Nichols and McChesney do not foresee the FTC or the FCC action as the answer to the journalism industry’s crisis. Rather, they see their approach, which uses the Internet as the catchall scapegoat, as counter-productive and derailing a larger issue. They write, “Now for the bad news: the way the challenges facing journalism are being discussed, indeed the way the crisis is being framed, will make it tough for even the most sincere policy-makers to offer a viable answer to it.”
This frame that Nichols and McChesney make reference to is that the journalism industry is suffering due to the rise of the “Internet Age.” The problem is that if both federal agencies base their recovery plan on the Internet, there will be considerable oversight regarding the underlying catalyst: the increase in commercial interest and the decline in democratic interest. They write, “The decline of commercial journalism predates the web. Newsrooms began to give up on maintaining staffs sufficient to cover their communities – effectively reducing the number of reporters relative to the overall population – in the 1980s.” This reduction in staff allowed for increased profits at the expense of hard-hitting news (which was being replaced by sensationalism and press releases). However, while Nichols and McChesney do recognize the impact of the Internet, they maintain that its impact has been “to accelerate and make irreversible a process that began before the digital age.”
In the end, Nichols and McChesney urge policymakers to abandon the notion that the journalism industry will be as profitable as it once was. Rather, due to the rise of the Internet, the landscape has changed, and the focus should return to promoting information and democracy, which at this point will require subsidies from the government. Journalism should not be equated to commercial value; rather, it should represent a tool for an informed public. Focusing on the Internet will derail the urgent conversation that needs to take place: democracy over profits. Nichols and McChesney write: “Today, as in the early Republic, our system of government cannot succeed and our individual freedoms cannot survive without and informed, participating citizenry, and that requires competitive, independent news media. For that to happen, the FTC, the FCC and Congress must stop blaming the Internet and start thinking about how enlightened subsidies could revitalize the very necessary public good that is journalism.”
While this article, titled “How to Save Journalism,” is a much-needed call to reorient the journalism crisis from commercial interest to democracy, it still puts the fate of the industry in the hands of government agencies. What can we do? Should we write letters to Congress? When and where is the FTC hearing? Can the public attend? Nichols and McChesney are successful in critiquing the government’s approach to this issue, but they fail to follow up with how citizens can provide additional support. If democracy is fundamental reason for supporting journalism, isn’t the public essential for its revival?