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.
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