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Newsroom by Flickr user victoriapeckham

"Newsroom" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was having a conversation with my good friend (and former boss) Rush Kidder just the other day, and the subject turned to journalism — specifically, the idea that as newspapers tank that foundations ought to step in and shore up journalism. Newspapers can become nonprofit entities.

This is an idea that has a number adherents among my journalism friends. I thought I would lay out what I think is probably the strongest argument in favor.

News vs. Journalism

“News” has always existed, since recorded history. People have always wanted to know what’s new.

“Journalism,” on the other hand — that is, a profession with a strong set of specific values to which everyone agrees — is a recent phenomenon, dating only to the late 19th century. This distinction between News and Journalism figures in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s important essay, What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

While the goal of News is to tell people what’s new, the goal of Journalism, according to Kovach and Rosenstiel, is to “provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

Until recently, you might say we were in a “golden age” of Journalism.

Also until very recently, you could argue that people were buying News, but were getting Journalism. But the business model that newspapers were using to deliver that Journalism (based on classified ads and display ads) had not yet broken. So everything was working. People bought News, and got Journalism, which looked close enough that they didn’t complain.

The Hole Only Journalism Can Fill

But now, that business model is broken. Free classifieds coupled with easy online availability has killed it. News has now migrated online and into various other distribution channels. And it’s been decoupled from Journalism as it has migrated. People find out what’s new in lots of different ways, without the help of Journalists.

For many things, this is perfectly adequate. I don’t need a Journalist to tell me who won the ball game, I can find out from my Twitter peeps or from a realtime score on a website.

But there’s still a hole that only Journalism can fill. One obvious one is investigative reporting. While in some instances individual bloggers have been able to break big and important stories, in most cases it takes a long time — and resources — to do a proper job of investigating. There’s also an important context-setting function Journalism can play, by being the long memory that helps make sense of what is happening.

And, most importantly, News sees its readers as customers, while Journalism sees its readers as citizens. I don’t mean individual people see it that way. I mean that News is in the business of giving people what they want — knowledge of what’s new. Journalism, on the other hand, wants to give people what they ought to know about (in addition to the news).

Is Journalism Commercially Viable?

A mutual friend of mine and Rush’s once said that the job of an editor is to know what people ought to know, and to make them want to know it.

Problem is, there is not yet a decent business model for creating and delivering Journalism.

That’s where philanthropy comes in. It is the duty of philanthropy to support that which is a public good but is not commercially viable or able to be self-sustaining.

While it is not clear that Journalism is commercially viable, it is clear that Journalism provides an important public good. Journalism is not the simple conveyance of News; it is something more.

It is also very iffy that Journalism could be commercially viable when it competes with News. (In other words, to the extent commercial models exist for News delivery, they aren’t as attractive for Journalism delivery.)

Supporting Journalism On Paper

News delivery is not necessarily the best use of the resources of a printing press. I get four newspapers delivered to my door every morning. By the time I pick them up, I know what they contain. However, paper delivery of Journalism may well be a good use of those same resources, as it provides permanence, long-form friendliness, and builds in a longer time horizon which can improve the quality of the Journalism.

Given this, why wouldn’t philanthropy see it as a good investment to keep some print newspapers afloat? Perhaps there would be a small handful of nationally-focused papers that are kept afloat in this way.

But you could also make an argument that some cities ought to have a Journalism resource of their own, too. Why couldn’t community foundations step in to fill that void? Certainly, you could make a strong argument that the state capitals ought to have such a source of Journalism.

Yes, But . . .

One last thing. I am not entirely sure I buy this line of argument, primarily because I am optimistic that today’s pain will drive new creative responses that we haven’t thought of yet. It’s happening more quickly in News delivery, but things like ProPublica give me hope on the Journalism side, too.  Soemhow, I feel like resorting to foundation funding for Journalism is throwing in the towel (maybe that’ll be a later essay).

However, there is a strong argument that it is the right thing.

Perhaps, in the end, there will be a much richer variety of News and Journalism outlets — some nonprofit, some for-profit, some volunteer.