By Bill Densmore
The Media Giraffe Project
PHILADELPHIA, Pa., June 14, 2005 -- Nearly 40 journalism author/scholars, former news-industry executives, consultants and observers wrapped up a meeting today in Philadelphia and plan to inventory ideas for stemming what many participants called a crisis over how the press fosters democracy.
The three-day "Commission on the Role of the Press in a Democracy," was assembled by the Institutions of Democracy project of the $250-million-endowment Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, a legacy left by Walter Annenberg, the former owner of TV Guide and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Particpants were brought together by invitation of two organizers, Geneva Overholser and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Overholser, a former editor at The Washington Post, New York Times and Des Moines Register, is now a professor at the University of Missouri's journalism school. Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. They are co-authors of a volume in a five-book series on the key institutions of democracy, including the press, public schools and the three branches of American government.
Jamieson called the assembly, and subsequent scholarship, an effort "to try and get the dialog out of the old treadways" in a process inspired by, but different from the 1947 Hutchins Commission report on "A Free and Responsible Press."
The group assembed at the Annenberg Center on Sunday evening and spent Monday listening to proposals from presenters among the group. They had been prepped with an advanced reading list advanced reading list totaling hundreds of pages of articles and book excerpts. Among initial suggestions recommenders made upon arrival on Sunday:
-- Create demand for the use of news in schools.
-- Provide "media literacy" training for adults.
-- Study worldwide media systems for ideas.
-- Accept that the current economic model for newspapers has failed.
-- Figure out how to provide non-boring substance.
-- Get corporate media executives involved
-- Better connect scholars with journalism business.
-- Abandon newspaper "core product" in favor of new forms.
-- Compare journalism to other challenged businesses
-- Learn more about readers and audiences
-- Celebrate journalism which works.
-- Regain more public use of telecommunications spectrum.
-- Create an "Associated Press" for ethnic and youth media
-- Become news gatherers, not just creators
-- Consider the "subscriber model" online
The fragmentation of mass-media audiences is ending defacto monopolies of TV networks and major daily newspapers and this is undermining their ability to finance journalism in the way it has been practiced in the last generation, attendees were told repeatedly by Monday's presenters. "There isn't any audience anymore, there are audiences," said John Soloski, dean of the University of Georgia journalism school. "And that's driving newspapers and advertisers crazy."
As audiences fragment, attendees learned, new classes of news presenters are emerging, including citizen journalists, bloggers, podcasters and others who might have formerly been considered amateurs but are now helping evolve new forms of two-way, participatory journalism. In this new environment, said Soloski, the key asset traditional news organizers still have is their brand, which they are in danger of undercutting.
Attendees considered ways in which the government might foster public-service journalism, listening to experts describe they way spectrum regulation since the 1930s, and postal subsidies since the 18th century, have done so. But most were deeply ambivalent about inviting government to be more active in creating tax or other benefits to journalists, saying content control might result.
Also debated without conclusion were ways in which journalism reformers might be able to speak as one voice through a new institution or collaboration which lobbies for open government and other free-press issues. "We must market," said James M. Naughton, retired president of the Poynter Institue, a St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism think tank. "We [must] speak more broadly for journalists . . . I think we have to act and we have to act now." He said media executives aren't speaking out and many, "don't seem to have a lot of confidence in their own companies."
If today's major-media companies are to be salvaged, a first step may be changing the compensation incentives which drive senior managers to make decisions based upon short-term profits goals, said Lawrence E. Mitchell, a George Washington University Law School professor who has written books on corporate governance. He proposed that media directors explicitly notify shareholders that their managements are being told to take a longer view, and modify compensation plans to de-emphasis short-term increases in stock price.
"Assuming they are like the rest of us, and that managers want to do the right thing, they will be freer to chose to do so," said Mitchell. He also suggested industry-specific tax-law changes to increase short-term capital gains on stock sales and to allow capitalization rather than expensing of journalism expenses, including training.
Two attendees with recent experience in web-based journalism -- ex-MSNBC.COM editor Merrill Brown and former Advance.NET President Jeff Jarvis expressed separate concerns that mainstream journalists and observers don't yet seem to understand that their business is slowling dying. "The discussion feels a little to me like moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Brown. "Like what failing industries undertake." Brown is author of a recent study for the Carnegie Corp. on that subject.
Here's an alphabetical list, in addition to Overholser and Jamieson, of the recommenders. Academic scholars are journalism or communications professors unless otherwise noted:
Claude-Jean Bertrand, professor emeritus, Institut Francais de Press of the University of Paris; Tom Bettag, senior executive producer, ABC News Nightline; Leo Bogart, columnist, Presstime and former head of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau; Merrill Brown, founder and principal, MMB Media LLC and former senior vice president, MSNBC.com; James Cary, Columbia University journalism professor; John Carey, Fordham Business School professor; Nicole A. Childers, Emmy Award-winning producer at National Public Radio; Sandy Close, founder, Pacific News Service and New California Media; and Timothy E. Cook, University of Louisiana political-communication professor.
Also, Everette Dennis, Fordham Business School professor and former vice president of the Gannett and Freedom Forum Foundation; William Densmore, director/editor of the Media Giraffe Project at UMass-Amherst; Karen Brown Dunlap, Poynter Institute president; Robert Entman, North Carolina State University; Robert Giles, Nieman Foundation curator and former Detroit News publisher.
Also, Doris Graber, University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist; James Hamilton, Duke University; Jeff Jarvis, consultant, author of BuzzMachine.com and former Advance.net president; Alex Jones, Shorenstein Center director at Harvard University; Jane Kirtley, media ethics/law professor, Univ. of Minnesota and former director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Stephen Lacy, Michigan State University; Gloria J. Ladson-Billings, education professor, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison; Craig LeMay, Northwestern University Medill School; and Charles Lewis, president, Fund for Independence in Journalism.
Also, Philip Meyer, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Dean Mills, dean, Univ. of Missouri journalism school; David T.Z. Mindich, St. Michael's College; Lawrence E. Mitchell, law-school professor, George Washington University; James M. Naughton, retired president, The Poynter Institute and former executive editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer; Thomas Patterson, press/government professor, Shorenstein Center at Harvard's JFK School; and O. Ricardo Pimentel, Milwaukee Journal editor-page editor.
Also, Abby Scher, sociologist and former director, Independent Press Assn.-New York; William Siemering, co-founder National Public Radio and former station manager WHYY, Philadelphia; John Soloski, dean, University of Georgia; William M. Sullivan, senior scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Susan E. Tifft, Duke University; Judy Woodruff ex-anchor and consultant, CNN; and Barbie Zelizer, University of Pennsylvania.