Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.


ournalism is no longer a viable business model, and it’s not coming back.  Journalism is on life support.  And we have to decide what to do.

That seems to be the consensus of the public interest advocates at this year’s RightsCon 2019—the premier global conference on human rights in the digital age, meeting now in Tunisia.  The problem being discussed here is not how to lure readers through pay walls and into subscriptions, but how to harness public investment in lump sums.  Public investment is also known as government subsidy.

I have resisted the idea that independent journalism is not up to the challenges of the information age.  Personally, I was inculcated with the “professional” tradition of journalism by Watergate-era teachers.


atergate journalism was the product of a great evolutionary leap in the early 20th century.  When President Teddy Roosevelt didn’t like what the press printed, he derided journalists as “muckrakers.”  He sued newspapers for reporting corruption, but his fussing only sold more papers.  Muckraking became a badge of honor, and a tradition was born of objective and balanced journalistic revelation of public and corporate corruption, independent of government entanglement.  Modern journalism was animated by the same post-war idealism that birthed the (underrated) League of Nations.  However incidental, the First Amendment’s simultaneous treatment of press and religion bolstered the notion of press-state separation.

In journalism by the late 20th century, we believed we had achieved the end of history, the ultimate model of a Fourth Estate in a liberal democracy.  I wrote an honors thesis on seemingly archaic journalist licensing in Central America.  When I posited to my professors, the Watergate crowd, the devil’s advocacy that maybe journalist licensing has an upside, we shared a good laugh.  Of course it would never work to have government oversight of journalism.  It would be the death of journalism and government accountability in one fell swoop.

In ethics class, we were taught to be wary of any entanglement with the subject of a story, and government is the greatest subject of all.  We grumbled our collective didactic disapproval of the sports reporter who accepted a free ride to the game on the team bus.  White House press credentials were a reality that made us swallow hard, but we took on faith that access to the press room would never be restricted based on content or viewpoint.  The American public wouldn’t abide it.  And hey, the room is only so big.

That was the heyday.  That was when journalism was alive and kicking.  We looked the other way when journalism had a coughing fit of consolidation.  We pretended everything was OK when journalism went 24/7.  We started new programs in j-schools when journalism went online.

Eventually, though, we had to admit that we were in denial.  It wasn’t the end of history.  It was just the end.

Journalism is dying.


dvocates here at RightsCon borrow liberally from the language of socioeconomic development, which in turn generalized upon environmentalism.  Brittan Heller, now a fellow at Harvard, admonished her audience to “stop saying ‘fake news,’” and, instead, to think more broadly about “the entire information ecosystem.”  At a panel organized by Reporters WithoutBorders (RSF, for Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières), Mira Milosevic expanded on the problem of “news deserts” in various countries, the United States included, where local news already is extinct.  Milosevic is executive director of the Global Forum for Media Development, and she worries about the “lack of sustainability” in journalism.  Consistently with UNESCO policy, this language portrays healthy journalism as an essential condition of human prosperity.  The language of environmentalism meanwhile tends to elevate the crisis in journalism to accordingly catastrophic scale: journalism is to political freedom as a green earth is to biological life.
RSF panel at RightsCon 2019 in Tunis. Including, from left to right: moderator
Elodie Vialle, RSF; Julie Owono, Internet Without Borders; Mira Milosevic.
My photo (CC BY 4.0).

The towel already has been thrown in from Walter Cronkite’s corner.  By RSF’s reckoning, journalism needs “a multi-stakeholder approach.”  If that’s right, then we stand on the brink of another evolutionary leap.  Though maybe the evolution metaphor peters out if, like me, you’re not convinced that change can only be for the better.  The stakeholders that journalism’s rescuers would bring to the table include the public, civic service organizations, and—here’s the kicker—“the ‘good’ forces of government,” as another RightsCon panelist put it.

Milosevic conceded that meaningful government commitment is essential if media watchdogs are going to tackle the populous public affairs machinery of contemporary corporations.  And there’s plenty of corporatocracy to tackle.  A RightsCon workshop moderated by Privacy International's  Francisco Vera, formerly of Derechos Digitales in Chile, discussed how nations are mis-regulating personal data through trade agreements, such as our old friend, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPATPP, which is better because it’s comprehensive).  Our governments—the bad parts—are more than eager, under the misleading banner of free trade, to cater to corporations by signing away our fundamental privacy rights and allowing data to be exported beyond the reach of jurisdictional law.

So it all shakes out this way:  Bad government is the problem.  Good government is the solution.  We don’t have to worry about absolute journalistic independence from government.  We need to get good government to fund journalism that will fight bad government and its corporate cronies.  Save the journalism, save the world.  And don’t worry that good government will be holding the purse strings.  Because, try to keep up, it’s good.

Milosevic suggested that fines for corporate abuses of the public trust might be channeled into funding public interest journalism.  That’s not a bad idea.  There is an appealing symmetry to buying the watchdog’s food with a share of the savings.  It’s like preventive qui tam.

It’s also not a wholly new idea.  If with waning enthusiasm, the United States, like many countries, supports the arts and public libraries.  We experimented successfully with this approach in 20th-century broadcasting.  Public funding gave birth to such instrumental institutions as National Public Radio and Sesame Street.  As the public tap has been cinched off, both have turned to the private sector for a lifeline.  Sesame Street succumbed to HBO.  


Pngimg.com (CC BY-NC 4.0)
f we’re going to do public investment in free expression, the challenge is to keep an arm’s length between investor and speaker.  On that score, America has a lousy track record.  The American Library Association is so battle weary on the intellectual freedom front that a RightsCon dinner companion accused it of cowardice: a far fall from its heroism of yore, when it championed opposition to internet filtering and national security gag orders.  When Americans pledge public resources, passion for individual ingenuity is soon overwhelmed by feverish fealty to the Middle Ages maxim: whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

Yet, I am told, journalism must now turn to government to ensure its survival—to ensure all our survival.  I don’t disagree.  I’m just worried.

I’m giddy at the idea that we are witnessing an evolutionary renaissance of the Fourth Estate.  At the same time, I’m nauseated at the prospect of a Faustian bargain.

Journalism is dying.  If we try to save it with a multitude of stakeholders, maybe we can resuscitate the journalism of our ideals.

Or, like Dr. Frankenstein, we’ll zap into existence an all new hybrid.  Maybe we’ll have zombie journalism on our hands, and it will devour the stringy remaining flesh of our gaunt democracy.

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