March 31, 2010 — The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has released a report examining the impact that changing media, including shrinking newsrooms and the move to online sources, may have on the democratic governance of our country.
Gerald L. Baliles, director of the center, released the report, titled "Old Media, New Media and the Challenge to Democratic Governance: Findings from the Project on Media & Governance," on March 20 at the Virginia Press Association's annual meeting in Roanoke.
"Given the current state of the newspaper business, I share the concerns of many about the future of the free press – and especially about the potential impact that this could have on the governance of our country," Baliles said.
"How will our leaders act when there are fewer journalists watching to hold them accountable? How will our citizens inform themselves when there is less reporting on the issues? Will new media be able to fill the void?"
The report is the product of the Project on Media & Governance, created by the Miller Center in response to a growing economic crisis within the news media. The project held a series of working sessions with a rotating cast of media professionals, policymakers and academic experts, including staff from Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission; Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post; John Temple, publisher of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News; and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Excellence in Journalism Project. Over the past year, the project has examined the state of journalism, the impact on governance and some possible solutions.
Findings from the report include:
• The loss of newspapers translates to a loss of journalism. As newspapers fold or move online, there are fewer journalists working in the United States. This creates potential problems for citizen access to critical political information, as well as a greater opportunity for corruption when journalists are not serving as watchdogs of political institutions.
• Attempts to monetize online news media have been mostly unsuccessful. For example, readers have been reluctant to pay for online versions of newspapers. Some suggest that greater profits could be generated if newspapers become more adept at data-mining, behavioral advertising and the use of story geo-codes to allocate advertising. However, these technologies have been slow to be adopted and may raise significant issues about user privacy.
• The increased availability of topic choice and the Internet's ability to "unbundle" news allows for citizens to access content they personally value, regardless of its democratic worth. Users will not accidentally read political news headlines by going to a sports Web site, like they might do with a print newspaper.
• Alternative players and partnerships are springing up. Traditional media are embracing partnerships with nonprofit organizations at an unprecedented rate. In addition, some nonprofit news organizations, for-profit online news start-ups, and hyper-local news sites and blogs have become significant and promising players.
• Any attempts at government policy should proceed cautiously and with short-term, renewable language:
• Policy should respond to market failures rather than create or encourage market failure.
• Policy should be crafted to limit government encroachment on journalism.
• The need for production of public affairs news in a democracy remains highly independent of its profitability, so policy should focus on stabilizing and enhancing production.
• Possible policy initiatives include clarifying that news-gathering organizations are nonprofits and therefore tax-exempt or reforming the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to encourage a greater focus on local coverage.
A PDF version of "Old Media, New Media and the Challenge to Democratic Governance: Findings from the Project on Media & Governance," as well as working group updates, can be found here.