Robert W. McChesney, a communications professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, stopped in Chicago at DePaul University and 57th Street Books in Hyde Park to talk about their new book The Death and Life of American Journalism on the collapse of traditional newspapers, the decline of journalism in this country, and the solutions Americans might employ to save journalism and, in fact, save America's democratic society from complete ruin.
As a young person, I probably could have gained more from being in a room at DePaul University with many, many journalists who will graduate and be out of work. It would have probably done me some good to witness their demoralization, despair, or pessimism so that I could share their fears and frustrations with other students. However, I chose to head south from Columbia College Chicago's campus to see the two talk in a bookstore that I now know used to be a favorite store of Obama's.
The bookstore could be considered a metaphor for what McChesney and Nichols are discussing. 57th Street Books is not Barnes & Noble. It has four or five small rooms filled with books in the basement of a building. Pipes for heating and wooden posts jut out and run through the middle of the store. The store has a very cozy setting and is not like big box bookstores that now populate this nation.
But, McChesney and Nichols had no intention of waxing nostalgic or poetic about what newspapers used to be like. So, it would be unfair to characterize the talk the two gave by drawing a parallel between the death of newspapers and the death of small bookstores.
Nichols framed the talk by saying this wasn't about just saving journalism but was really about saving democracy. He led about thirty citizens of Chicago in the room through a history of freedom of the press in society and through a history of the 19th century when abolitionists were making slavery an issue that was up for discussion in America because they had subsidies to support their journalism.
McChesney took the floor after Nichols and clearly outlined some of the many questions that were explored as the two developed their solutions to the crisis: solutions that center around making journalism a public good and developing ways to subsidize public media, community news operations, low power FM radio projects, etc.
It became evident as this talk came to an end that what really was at stake here was our ability as citizens to defend and maintain public goods and services against private ownership. It also was evident that we don't have the luxury of solving the problems of media by tackling one issue; we have to continue all of our social movements and make media democracy a second or third issue.
One of the ideas that most intrigued me was the idea put forth by Nichols that many, many young journalists are losing interest in journalism because there are no jobs. He proposed that America set up a News Americorps so young people could work at community radio stations, develop news sites in communities, and help start up media organizations. This would directly benefit citizens and give young people truly remarkable experiences in the field of journalism.
I feel this is one measure that could really lead young people to consider what it means to be a journalist. An Americorps program for news would not only help youth realize journalism is a public good but it would also, hopefully, lead them to be less complacent in a news media climate that desperately needs many of its conventions to be upended.
Young journalists are rightfully terrified of life without a job doing a craft they went to school to learn, school they will be paying massive student loans on for years. They play it safe and are all too willing to serve local news entities that inundate communities regularly with weather, crime, self-help, and sports segments irrelevant to whether we survive as an American society or not.
Far too many youth lack the will or fire to go out and do good muckraking journalism or just plain classic investigative reporting.
Youth come to colleges to do celebrity, fashion, and sports reporting. They want to do 600-word blog gossip and make money off what they think there is a market for. Their perceptions are usually affirmed as they are taught that political or social journalism has no advertising dollars to support it and so they must find another way to succeed.
I purchased the book after McChesney and Nichols were finished andstood there in the presence of titans who have presented the state of journalism to citizens hoping to compel them to act for well over a decade now.
I approached McChesney to get my book signed, introduced myself, and realized how happy I was that I had been slaving for the past months to organize a media reform summit with a prime focus on education for Columbia College Chicago. I actually didn't have to introduce myself; a fellow organizer was telling McChesney what I am doing on campus.
Nichols made sure I knew that I would have to keep coming back to students to tell them what needed to be done. And, McChesney, co-founder of Free Press, was impressed to know that I was putting together a media summit in Chicago that Free Press supported and that I had been trying to turn students on to media reform & justice issues.