originally published 3/18/2010 at HuffingtonpostNewspapers are dying. Let them. There may have been people who wanted to rescue the buggy whip industry. But they were misguided. It was transportation they really cared about. We need to initiate dynamic, bottom-up approaches to support the ailing field of Journalism, not newspapers.
The writing is on the web and the smart phone, not the wall, not the paper. Newspapers are dying because new generations with bottom-up brains marinated in the internet no longer read newspapers. Under 30s want text message and twitter tweet length reading material and they want video and podcasts, not dead tree long writing.
Congress held hearings on the newspaper industry. There's talk or allusion to the idea that newspapers will be "rescued" by Obama, by congress. That's a bad idea. They are rescuing the bathwater, not the baby.
The function of newspapers that is important is investigative journalism -- digging up the less than obvious, the secrets that government and corporate officials hide. Journalists make transparent that which has been hidden or made hard to see or find.
Newspapers have been among the primary sources for funding journalists. But as media ownership has consolidated and become less diverse and more top-down, so the number of independent newspapers has dropped, and as revenues have dropped, less and less money has been allotted to pay for investigative reporting. And that consolidated, increasingly top-down trend has hurt journalism, just as consolidation of the banking industry after the economic meltdown has failed to help the average American.
The new American business model, the one that has proven to be fabulously successful even in these tough times, is based on bottom-up approaches. Google, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, to name a few, are all based on inviting the crowd into the business mix. Transparency is a big part of the new corporation and so is open sourcing of information -- that means giving things away free.
I'm a firm believer that a strong media, and that means strong investigative journalism, is essential for democracy and efficient operation of both government and corporations. Investigative journalism digs and exposes. That's an incredibly valuable function. It's so valuable, it's worth investing in ... with the expectation of solid returns on that investment.
I say, instead of taking a top down approach and giving huge chunks of money to a handful of failing newspapers, (the same approach that was not very effective, in the long run, in dealing with the bank liquidity crisis), have government fund journalism and journalists from the bottom up. Take a bottom-up approach and give the money to tens of thousands of journalists -- writers and photographers and videographers. That will take huge financial pressure off the newspapers, give them a lot more content they can use, and help expand the growing blogosphere, where content is usually free and millions of people are operating small businesses with the potential to grow. Small business is where the most job creation has always flourished and small businesses are not too big to die.
Establish a budget based on a reasonable rate of return. The US economy is about $13 trillion dollars. I say, invest a quarter of a tenth of one percent on journalists, whose job it is to investigate politicians, laws, corporations, with the goal to increase transparency, decrease corruption and increase responsibility, honesty, accountability, growth and prosperity. A budget that size is about $ 3.5 billion. With a salary model, this budget would allow for 50,000 journalists with $60,000/year salaries, plus benefits.
Then, those journalists would be responsible for getting their work read. The best journalists would be picked up by the best media. The journalists whose work did not get attention would make less money each year. We have ways to measure interest and readership -- Google ranking, Quantcast, Alexa.com, and Amazon all assess the traffic, the number of links and the popularity of things, sites, even ideas. Facebook, Twitter and instagram shares could also be added to the accounting. If a writer's reporting is picked up by the TV news, by hundreds or thousands of bloggers, that writer is reaching a lot of people. A bottom-up media approach will let we-the-people decide which journalists are the best.
Or, going even more bottom-up, open journalism to every writer, photographer and videographer. Track their traffic and views, factor in the service they do, in terms of exposing waste, corruption, good work, etc. and reward them based on those factors.
In the bottom-up world, where thousands or millions of people share in decision making, network TV has a limited place. There are exceptions. American Idol and The Voice tap the wisdom of the crowd to some extent. That approach could be taken much farther. Imagine news shows where a bottom up approach was applied to deciding what news was covered. If you look at Digg.com, Fark, Reddit, Yahoo's buzzup, Buzzflash's buzz, and Twitter tweet counts, they all enable users to vote on which headlines rise to the top. If a major network or a new network allowed viewers to decide what was covered, this would even allow network news to become bottom up. Would it work? The number of viewers would be a clear indicator. It won't be surprising if certain topics gather a lot of support that may not pull a lot of viewers. For example, if a group like Focus on the Family goes to a site and artificially votes up coverage of an abortion protest, but then, no-one watches the coverage, it will be easy to develop software that discounts votes for certain topics for a certain period of time.
Not all journalism is mediagenic and sexy. There will have to be some way to give credit to journalists who cover local school board and town council meetings, because they should be covered too.
If the US government invests directly in journalists, so their writings and reports can be freely used by any media organization or site, that investment will yield big results. Instead of seeing journalists as employees who generate news to sell papers, we can view journalists as sleuths to find waste, corruption, cool ideas and projects that are working. I don't think that government should fund coverage of sports or celebrities. It seems those topics are still doing pretty well. We need to fund investigative journalism, not entertainment journalism.