The Death and Life of American Journalism: The media revolution that will begin the world again. by Robert McChesney and John Nichols.

Year after year, commentators proclaim the death of verifiable, watchdog journalism.

The leading cause, doomsayers preach, is the rise of the Internet. Why would anyone pay for a daily newspaper, a magazine subscription, or watch advertiser-supported television when the free Internet is a mouse click away? But, the doomsayers reply, depending on bloggers and other Internet amateurs for responsible journalism is dangerous.

Democratic rule will wither across the nation because those in power will take advantage of trained journalists disappearing. It is a reasonable assumption that most readers of this newsletter will have paid attention to ‘The-decline-of-journalism’ predictions. After all, many of us are journalists, photographers, writers, or we depend on media journalism for our livelihood.

So why read an entire book about such a depressing topic?

First, though most of the discussions about causes and effects come from intensely self-interested parties, McChesney, a professor of communication, and Nichols, an on-the-ground journalist, are as independent of special interests as is possible while remaining informed. Second, the authors present their case at book length, which allows for details and nuances often lost in less comprehensive forums. Finally, after reading descriptions of the crisis that seem repetitive, an intelligent discussion about solutions seems in order, and McChesney and Nichols deliver.

To give away at least some of the ending, the solutions involve lots of direct and indirect government assistance to support legitimate journalism enterprises. Quite a few commentators avoid that path because they believe government should never be given an opportunity to control individual journalists or journalism organisations. McChesney and Nichols suggest that such thinking is outmoded and partially deluded.

Readers who want to go directly to the solutions would miss the following:

Chapter 1: The Internet has contributed to the collapse of for-profit-journalism organisations, but that is not the whole story. Greedy or otherwise short-sighted owners of journalism media began hurting themselves long before the easy accessibility of the Internet. Those owners shunted aside the guardianship of democratic values in favour of a fatter financial payout. Eventually, paying customers figured out they were being short-changed, so they took their eyeballs elsewhere.

Chapter 2: It is too late for owners of for-profit-media to revamp their business model to squeeze money from new online operations. Journalism is a public good, and not all public good services such as lending libraries and food-safety-inspections are commercially viable. They need government support.

Chapter 3: Potential government censorship of journalistic content should not be the beginning and end point of discussion about systemic repairs. McChesney and Nichols conducted research persuading them that ‘government created the free press throughout America with aggressive and often enlightened policies and subsidies. Such as favourable postal rates, copyright protection, allocation of scarce airwaves for broadcast news, funding public radio and public television channels. Without this government role, it is unlikely that US democracy would have survived, let alone blossomed.’

The fourth chapter, tellingly titled ‘Subsidising Democracy’ contains the bulk of the discussion about solutions. The authors suggest ‘immediate measures to sustain journalism, each of which transitions to a permanent subsidy if successful. Thus, a plan to convert the collapsing corporate newspaper into what we term a post-corporate digital newspaper, perhaps with some print vestiges intact; converting public and community broadcasting into genuinely world-class civic and democratic media; and spawning a vibrant, well-funded, competitive and innovative news media sector on the Internet.’

Various taxes proposed by the authors would pay for much of the new journalism world.

It will be interesting to observe whether the McChesney- Nichols’ recommendations become part of a serious discussion among policymakers, or fade into oblivion. It seems appropriate to mention what is perhaps obvious, given this audience of writers. For us, layoffs and firings at journalism media might create opportunities as well as redundancies. Freelancers might pick up paid work that used to be handled by salaried staff, or even gain staff positions, replacing veteran journalists who earn larger salaries justified by their lifetime of journeyman experience. Thus, the crisis threatening journalism is not equally distributed. However, replacing experienced veteran journalists with lowly paid novices means the standard of our media will decline. It’s logical.

In some places, we are seeing this happening already.

-The Death and Life of American Journalism: The media revolution that will begin the world again. by Robert McChesney and John Nichols.