Columbia Journalism School Report Proposes New Steps to Support Quality Public Affairs Reporting

Oct. 19, 2009Bookmark and Share

As the news business continues to confront fundamental economic challenges, a report released today by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism proposes new steps for maintaining a vibrant, independent press, with special emphasis on local “accountability journalism” that is essential to civic life. The report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” was written by Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, professor at the School of Journalism, who discuss the report in the video below.

Their cautiously optimistic report, commissioned by Columbia’s Journalism School and underwritten in large part by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, takes full account of the well-known problems caused by deep cutbacks in reporting on public issues, especially in local newspapers. Yet even as advertising revenues continue to fall, budgets are further reduced and more news outlets shutter their doors, the authors also identify “abundant opportunity in the future of journalism”—especially in the very online medium that has caused the economic disruption of traditional media models. In particular, they point to a growing number of innovative online journalistic endeavors that can be developed on a broader scale to provide Americans with a diverse mix of for-profit, low-profit and non-profit sources of news and public affairs. 
“It is a truism never to be taken for granted that a dynamic free press is essential to a healthy democracy, not just in our local communities, but in an increasingly global society,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, a noted constitutional scholar of free speech. “Yet our assumptions about the durability of the news business—as a business—have been fundamentally shaken with remarkable speed by the Internet. As a great university committed to finding solutions to society’s great challenges, it makes perfect sense that Columbia’s Journalism School would contribute practical ideas to this vital conversation about the future of quality news reporting.”
The report’s authors were asked to take a comprehensive, clearheaded look at and assess the enormous changes taking place in American journalism and to make recommendations for the future. Downie stepped down last year after 17 years as executive editor of The Washington Post, during which time the paper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes. Schudson, a MacArthur Fellow, is a distinguished scholar of journalism and democracy, and author of Discovering the News, The Good Citizen, Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press, and other books.
“What is unusual about this report, aside from the stature of its authors and the breadth of their original research, is that it focuses resolutely on a particular function of the press: what it calls ‘accountability journalism,’” said Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann. “The Internet, as the report makes clear, has brought an end to the days when privately owned newspapers could be the main bearers of this reporting function. The report does not envision newspapers disappearing, but it also does not regard restoring newspaper staffs to their former size as possible. It looks forward to a new, mostly digital, era of news production, in which newspapers will continue to have a leading role, but as part of a much larger cast of featured players.”
In addition to seeing a leading role for strategically focused, for-profit media businesses with the necessary scale and resources to support serious reporting, Downie and Schudson place significant weight on the growing responsibility of foundations, universities and other mission-driven partners committed to public affairs news coverage as “a continuous public good.” They also make specific proposals for changes to the federal tax code that would allow journalism organizations to operate more flexibly as both non-profit and low-profit corporations.
“The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone,” they assert. Instead, they believe long-term support must come from novel partnerships and collaborations among journalists, foundations, universities and other stakeholders to ensure the future of independent news reporting. In fact, Downie and Schudson point out, the future of journalism, marked by such collaborations, is already under way. “At many of the news organizations we visited, new and old,” they write, “we have seen the beginnings of a genuine reconstruction of what journalism can and should be.”
In Downie and Schudson’s words, “It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including printed newspapers. What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is popular or profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”
Among their key recommendations, the authors argue for the federal tax code to clearly recognize independent news organizations devoted to reporting on public affairs as nonprofit entities, allowing them to receive tax-deductible donations, along with advertising revenue and other income. They also make the case for a national fund, using receipts collected by the FCC, to finance local news reporting. To further encourage a commitment to such local reporting, the report calls for “urgent action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting” to challenge public radio and television to invest in a significant expansion of news coverage of their communities.
"As a foundation committed to maintaining a healthy, robust and democratic society we were enthusiastic when Dean Nicholas Lemann came to us with the idea for a report on the future of journalism,” said Julie Sandorf, President, Charles H. Revson Foundation. “Columbia Journalism School is providing an important road map for not only restoring, but increasing the quantity and quality of public affairs reporting at the city, metro and state levels. I am pleased that the Revson Foundation was able to help make this report possible and look forward to participating in the ongoing conversation it has fostered at the Journalism School and beyond."
“The Reconstruction of American Journalism” report will be launched at an event at the New York Public Library on Oct. 20. A shorter version of the report will appear in the November/December issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and on the CJR website (, along with commentary from five responders and a podcast Q&A with report authors, Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie. The full report is now available at