The title of Dr. Bob McChesney’s Oct. 4 lecture said all Bradley students needed to know about what he thinks of the news industry: Will the last reporter please turn out the light?
“To say that journalism is in a crisis is banal,” McChesney said. “We already know that.” He believed that if Bradley students had graduated in 1933 during the worst of the Great Depression, they would’ve had an easier time finding a job in journalism than today. Citing the Pew Research Center’s 2010 State of the News Media report, McChesney said original reporting was down more than 30 percent in 10 years, and down more than 70 percent in the last 20 years. “The fleet of reporters that used to go to Springfield (to cover the Capitol) could probably fit in Tony Soprano’s limo,” he said. McChesney worried that what we call journalism is going to be more about celebrities, inane scandals, car crashes or debating the intelligence of what a politician said. In other words, “a lot of nonsense and a lot of junk.”
McChesney said the problem with journalism isn’t on the scale of AIDS or climate change. “This is just a political issue,” he said.
In fact, he argues, the government should subsidize the press, even if the cost would be an estimated $35 billion. Quashing the idea that a democratic government couldn’t fund a free press, he pointed to a survey published by The Economist. Four of the five most democratic countries, as rated by the survey, are all European countries and have subsidies for journalism (Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands and Denmark). His research found that the most uncensored, private commercial press systems are given the most subsidies.
Another suggestion included allowing every American the option to channel $200 a year to any nonprofit news medium of their choice. Even more, the post office subsidized newspapers until the early 1800s. Some newspapers printed up to three editions, seven days a week. McChesney argued that two of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, would have believing in mailing newspapers for free.
The Gutgsell Endowed Professor from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said one solution wasn’t an option: the Internet. Conventional wisdom, McChesney said, blames the Internet for our crisis and took away the business model for journalism. Sites such as Craigslist caused a decline in ads and Facebook and Twitter took away young people. “There’s an element of truth to that, but it’s a small argument,” he said, noting that in 2010, Pew researchers found a decline in resources starting in the 1980s.
He said a theory exists that “the same Internet that killed our journalism is going to wave a magic wand over it and give us a brand new journalism … that’s not going to happen.” Journalism isn’t about gimmick technology, McChesney said. Instead, he argues the Internet has created a new peasantry and is not a functional way to making a living, using bloggers, amateurs and citizen journalists as examples. “Citizen journalists is just another way to say unpaid journalists,” he quipped. He likened volunteer journalists to volunteer heart surgeons: “You get what you pay for.”
McChesney argued that we need reforms to bring about sweeping changes in the way journalism is funded in order to save the industry. “Some people are perfectly content with a journalism-free environment,” he said, adding that they’re the same people who oppose reform. McChesney said journalism should be understood as a public good, but there are some things in the market for which people cannot express a desire. “Public education is a classic example,” he said. “You benefit by having an educated public around you.” He said that even if someone doesn’t ever plan to read a newspaper, that citizen still benefits by having a journalist covering the White House, Congress or a governor.
Much like the Occupy Wall Street movement, McChesney urged students to “yell, scream, let them know you’re unhappy.” He said if they’re not concerned about you, then you’re not yelling loud enough. “It’s going to be people like you who are going to make (reforms) happen, and I’m here to support you,” he said.
- Free Press
- State of the News Media 2010: Community journalism
- Pew Internet: How people learn about local news
- Media Matters with Bob McChesney, airing Sundays in Peoria on 90.7 FM at 1 p.m.
- Follow the conversation among Advanced Reporting students on Twitter with #lastlight