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Report Urges Broad Actions to Preserve Journalism

by Andrew Vanacore

Journalism is at risk and American society must act to preserve it, according to a report co-authored by The Washington Post's former executive editor.

In a paper commissioned by the Columbia University Journalism School, the ex-Post editor, Len Downie, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia professor, argue the government, universities and nonprofit foundations should step in as newspapers suffer financially. (Image: myplaceforenglish.blogspot.com) In a paper commissioned by the Columbia University Journalism School, the ex-Post editor, Len Downie, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia professor, argue the government, universities and nonprofit foundations should step in as newspapers suffer financially.

The authors recommend that the Internal Revenue Service or Congress ensure the tax code allows local news outlets to operate as nonprofits. Downie and Schudson also urge philanthropic organizations to support local reporting. They suggest the Federal Communications Commission establish a fund using fees from telecommunications companies or Internet providers for grants to innovative local news groups.

The authors would also like to see public radio sharpen its focus on local news, while universities partner with professional journalists on reporting projects. Finally, Downie and Schudson suggest that data gathered by federal and local governments be made more accessible and useful to reporters.

The report, coming from one of the most prominent newspaper editors in the country, is a stark admission that newspapers' problems run deeper than the current recession.

As they lose advertisers and readers to the Web - where ads are cheap and news is often free - newspapers will play a smaller role in keeping powerful people and institutions in check, the report concludes. The focus now, the authors argue, should be finding workable alternatives.

"American journalism is at a transformational moment, in which the era of dominant newspapers and influential network news divisions is rapidly giving way to one in which the gathering and distribution of news is more widely dispersed," the report begins.

Some of the suggestions in the Downie-Schudson report already are being tried, including philanthropic funding for journalism projects. But not everyone agrees on what other ideas ought to be pursued next.

Anything with the ring of a government "bailout" of the news industry is likely to be met with skepticism. And many in the industry have argued journalists should focus on finding new for-profit models for supporting their craft rather than look for handouts.

Then again, "It's hard to think of a time when change was not controversial," said Brant Houston, the Knight Chair Professor in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois.

What could be worse, he argues, is if nothing is done, and journalists continue to lose their jobs.

"If this report is read and read by more than just journalists, it will be really important," said Houston, who was not involved in the report. "More nonprofit and university involvement may be just part of a transitional phase. Right now we're all interested in building a bridge to what's next. If we don't, a lot of people are going to be left on the other side and a lot of skills and knowledge are going to be lost."

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