AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2009

A New Foundation   

Winter preview
The search for solutions to journalismís crisis

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

In the Tarantino masterpiece "Kill Bill: Vol. 2," there's a point in the mesmerizing showdown between The Bride (Uma Thurman) and Bill (David Carradine) when The Bride says she can't believe that Bill shot her in the head--at her wedding rehearsal, no less. "You know," she says, "five years ago, if I had to make a list of impossible things that would never happen, you performing a coup de gr‚ce on me, by busting a cap in my crown, would have been right at the top of the list."

If five years ago someone had told me Len Downie was going to come out in favor of government subsidies for news organizations, I would have been as incredulous as the great Uma.

Downie, the longtime Washington Post executive editor, is the quintessential old-school newspaper guy--and I mean that as a compliment. A total stickler, he was famous (or notorious) for refusing to vote so as not to compromise his objectivity.

But there it is: In their new report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," Downie, now teaching at Arizona State, and Columbia journalism professor Michael Schudson call for creation of a federal Fund for Local News to underwrite "worthy initiatives in local news reporting."

Desperate times demand desperate measures. And as the infrastructure of journalism as we know it collapses, re-examining long-treasured positions makes sense.

At first blush, the idea of government-funded reporting is worrisome. Taking money from the people you cover? Isn't that a classic conflict of interest, or certainly the appearance of one? What about the threat to credibility? Well, judging by public opinion polls and anecdotal evidence, the news media's credibility isn't exactly sky-high right now. And that government-subsidized BBC seems to do some first-class reporting.

Not that I'm ready to enfold the idea in a warm embrace. Even if there were political support for the fund--a big if--setting it up would be a massive logistical challenge. Towering firewalls would be critical to avoid government interference in newsgathering. And I'm awfully uncomfortable about the feds picking the people who would dole out the largesse. My point is that as news organizations shed staff and teeter on the brink, it makes sense to put some unconventional ideas on the table.

Take the idea of foundation-funded journalism. Not long ago that would have set off alarm bells. In her prescient piece in AJR, Carol Guensburg recounted what happened when the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation was thinking about setting up a news service to cover health. Matt James, a senior vice president of the foundation, ran the idea past Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and, like Downie, a distinguished traditional journalist. James told Guensburg that Kovach was generally encouraging. But, James recalled, Kovach also "basically said, 'Five years ago..I would have told you to go to hell and shown you the door.' "

Now, of course, philanthropy is emerging as a major player in the battle to keep good journalism alive. There's been a veritable explosion of nonprofit news initiatives.

Kaiser did set up that health news operation. The Sandler Foundation launched ProPublica, an investigative reporting outfit. Donations helped establish local Web sites like voiceofsandiego.org and the Beacon in St. Louis and the Texas Tribune. In California, a philanthropist, a public broadcaster and a journalism school are teaming up to cover local news online in the San Francisco Bay Area. And the Center for Investigative Reporting has put together California Watch, the state's largest investigative team.

Foundations, alarmed at the plummeting roster of journalists in the United States and worried about what that means for democracy, are suddenly much more open to joining the search for solutions. In November, the Open Society Institute convened a gathering of foundation representatives and grantees to discuss ways that foundations could help turn the tide.

In the past, journalists were wary about philanthropists because of the fear that the money would come with strings attached. But the new ventures have been encouraging so far. And given the seriousness of the problem, they are worth the chance.

And it's not as if purely commercial news operations don't have their own dangers, as the tradition of, say, craven capitulation to auto dealers vividly reminds us.

But while some traditional positions seem open to review, some are nonnegotiable. Among them is the need for an army of professional reporters large enough to give citizens in a democracy the information they need. Obviously, the performance of the mainstream media has hardly been perfect. There has been no shortage of scandals and snafus in recent years. But there has also been a great deal of essential reporting.

It's true that citizen journalists and bloggers add much to the mix. But I'm not ready to rely on them for day in and day out coverage of Afghanistan or the federal government or city hall, not to mention the investigative and enterprise projects so crucial to accountability journalism. That's why it's so important that foundations are stepping up.