In a speech that was equal parts history lesson and visionary roadmap, journalism scholar and sociologist Michael Schudson told a crowd of USC Annenberg students and academics Thursday night that while the news media landscape will change, the quality of journalism to come will still be much better than it has been for much of America's history.
"If there is a decline in the quality and democratic value of our journalism over the past five or ten years," Schudson said, "it is a decline from a higher state of performance than we have had at any time in U.S. history before the late 1960s."
Schudson's talk, titled "Envisioning a News Ecology of the Future," was the first of a series of talks on Entrepreneurship and the Future of News, sponsored by Dean Ernest J. Wilson III. The speaker series is itself a part of the dean’s Economic Literacy and Entrepreneurship initiative, designed to encourage USC Annenberg students to rely on the principles of economics and a spirit of entrepreneurship as they envision the future of journalism and communication.
“It wasn’t long ago that the title ‘Entrepreneurship and the Future of News’ would have been boring or contradictory,” Dean Wilson said in his opening remarks. “We’re now at the point where entrepreneurship and journalism are joined at the hip. Our students have the responsibility and the expectation to invent the future.”
Before looking to the future, Schudson, a Columbia University journalism professor and MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, turned to the past. Before the 1960s, Schudson said, American journalism was provincial, self-serving and overly deferential to those in power. The Civil Rights Era, the countercultural revolution and the Watergate scandal engendered a "cultural presumption of 'public-ness,'" Schudson said, resulting in greater public scrutiny of the business of politics, an enhanced role of journalists as defenders of democracy and the establishment of the modern news media industry.
The arrival of the Internet – while catastrophic to some existing media business models – has further encouraged the service of a free press to American democracy, Schudson argued. Citing such models as TalkingPointsMemo.com, ProPublica.org and VoiceofSanDiego.org, Schudson credited new media sites with driving the field of journalism forward.
Outlets like these "are springing up, they’re growing, they’re providing effective journalism – including original reporting – and so providing effective models for the future," he said, citing as positive factors the medium's low barriers to entry and its emphasis on collaboration, as well as the dedication of those who practice it for the sake of its importance to society, rather than for high salaries. “They’re not dining on expense accounts,” he said.
He drew comparisons between the journalism of the future and the current state of the arts and sciences – the vocation of passionate individuals and mission-driven organizations, with funding from a wide variety of public and private sources. “There’s not a business plan for a string quartet,” he said, “and it’s becoming clear that journalism is increasingly gravitating into that realm.”
Schudson (pictured below left, with USC Annenberg executive in residence David Westphal) also offered a spirited rebuke to critics of his recent report, co-authored with former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, calling for numerous changes in the practice of journalism, including direct government support of news outlets.
Responding to the assertion that government support leads inevitably to government control, he said that to take his critics' view is to "ignore a great deal of the established facts of the world. You have to ignore that NPR and PBS exist. They’ve existed for forty years, and we are not yet a slave state.”
Rather than resist exploring new income streams, Schudson advised future media producers and consumers to experiment with a broad spectrum of funding models, thereby shoring up journalism’s base of support.
“Any source of funding is a potential source of corruption,” he said. “So there is a sort of advantage in playing these off of each other and having multiple sources of funding.”