I had the great privilege of being one of about 40 leaders from journalism, foundations and academia in attendance at a two-day nonprofit media conference hosted by Duke University’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Several stalwarts of old and new journalism were there (Len Downie and Phil Bennett formerly of the Washington Post both now heading to academia; ProPublica Managing Editor Stephen Engleberg; Peter Osnos, now with Public Affairs formerly with the Washington Post; Penelope Muse Abernathy, formerly of the New York Times; Chuck Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity now at American University; Joel Kramer of MinnPost; Margie Freivogel from the St. Louis Beacon, etc.), along with folks from the Knight Foundation, Surdna, McCormick Tribune and a few community foundations.
Journalism crisis as natural process
Journalists are fond of metaphors to make the complex simple. One metaphor pervaded the sessions at Duke: the crisis in journalism as forest fire. It seemed a colorful and appropriate metaphor. But it quickly acquired meme-like potency. It occurred to me that the forest fire may be the perfect metaphor for what’s happening in journalism, and may also contain the directions for how we should think about the future of the business.
If we think of journalism as an industry whose existence is foreordained and everlasting, then the appropriate metaphor for what’s happening might be the apocalypse. We would do everything in our power to save it as we know it. But if you think of journalism as an ecosystem, produced by organisms for the general welfare of our species and our planet, then you immediately accept a natural cycle of life, decay, death and rebirth. To think otherwise would be to defy the natural order of things.
Once you think of journalism as an ecosystem (a word used again and again during the sessions at Duke) then you quickly understand that there’s built into it a food chain, a system of symbiosis and competition, of demise and regeneration. Forest fires burn down the big old trees, but the ashes provide rich nutrients for new growth. So it is in journalism. There are new shoots already emerging (ProPublica, MinnPost, St. Louis Beacon, Voice of San Diego) and there are many that have yet to emerge or are just being conceived.
There are some initiatives to send in fleets of cargo planes full of water and fire retardant by creating a National Endowment for Journalism (more on that later this month), or to otherwise get the government involved in preserving the industry, because it seems that the market will fail to do so. There was a fair amount of discussion about whether America could ever support a system like Britain’s or Canada’s that would levy some sort of tax or fee to create a fund for government-sponsored journalism. That, of course, is anathema to the “Don’t Tread on Me” teabag crowd and maybe many others still, and one could only imagine that any such effort would meet ferocious opposition. Not to say that there’s not merit in the idea, only that it probably ain’t going to fly in this country like it did in the UK or Canada.
And if, like me, you believe that this country possesses a limitless reservoir of innovative energy, then government sponsorship of media doesn’t seem like the most productive way to unleash that energy. What we need are many people trying many things. To do that, we need adventurous funders who aren’t afraid to give a little water and light to a seedling that might not make it, knowing that if you cultivate enough of them, the forest will return–and probably healthier and more diverse than it was before.