Former top Washington Post editor offers take on future of journalism

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No one knows exactly where American journalism is headed, but self-proclaimed “dinosaur” Len Downie Jr. is confident there is a future for a profession many fear may be on its way to extinction.

Downie, who retired as executive editor of The Washington Post in 2008, shared his insights with business journalists at the final session of SABEW’s annual conference at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix on March 21.

Now the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School, Downie and Columbia University colleague Michael Schudson co-authored a report on the topic that was published in the Columbia Journalism Review last year.

“Sitting at the bridge as we were approaching the iceberg concentrated my attention on the future of news,” Downie told the crowd of about 100 journalists.

Indeed, traditional media outlets have floundered as consumers and advertisers alike have found other ways to spend their time and money. But there’s hope for organizations that transform themselves into smaller, nimbler entities willing to collaborate with others to report the news, he said.

He praised the burgeoning group of startup ventures and university programs racing to fill gaps in watchdog coverage, likening the explosion to the growth of newspapers in the second half of the 19th century.

But their success-and that of their established counterparts-depends on their ability to establish credibility and identify dependable business models. And unlike the days when the news industry shared a common advertiser-supported plan, Downie said the answer is much more complicated now.

“There is not going to be one single solution,” he said.

To that end, Downie shared recommendations made in the report:

* The IRS or Congress should authorize news organizations reporting on public affairs to be classified as nonprofit or low-profit LLCs serving the public interest, enabling them to receive philanthropic support.

* Philanthropists and foundations should increase support of such organizations.

* Public radio and public television stations should be required to provide significant local news reporting in every community they serve.

* Universities should become ongoing sources of reporting as part of their educational missions.

* The government should create a national fund for local news, using money the FCC now collects, and award grants to organizations through competitions administered by local councils.

* Everyone-journalists, nonprofits and governments-should do more to increase the accessibility to public information and better disseminate it.

“There is a lot of information out there,” Downie said, “and it needs more attention.”

(Andrea Davis is a senior editor at the Indianapolis Business Journal.)

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