The Fallacy Behind Efforts to Save 'Public Service Journalism'S

Newspapers are dying, which means there will never be any more investigative journalism and politicians will screw whomever they want. But it's OK, because "innovative" new "partnerships" like the Chicago News Cooperative are here to produce real journalism.

The lofty rhetoric surrounding the launch of outfits like the CNC, a MacArthur Foundation-funded news organization run by former Chicago Tribune staffers, is based on the notion that genuine public-service journalism—the expensive boring stuff that results in legislation—is at risk as for-profit newspapers crater. In the words of CNC founder and former Trib editor Jim O'Shea:

At a time of declining resources in newsrooms across the nation, journalists must adapt to new technologies and devise some creative, innovative ways to fulfill our obligations so we can hold our government accountable to citizens and restore to our journalism the standards desperately needed in these troubled times.

Newspapers can't afford to live up to those obligations anymore, so nonprofit-funded outlets like the CNC need to step into the gap. So what sort of hard-hitting "accountability journalism" can we expect from these new creatures? The CNC has contracted with the New York Times to produce an insert for the paper's Chicago editions purporting to bring Chicago readers the sort of shoe-leather that the bankrupt Chicago Tribune can't afford to produce anymore. It debuted today, so lets have a look.

Now for the rest:

Some of this is perfectly useful, but is it going to save journalism? Does a recitation of the Bulls' woes count as holding "our government accountable to citizens"? Is the MacArthur Foundation fulfilling its mission of creating a "more just, verdant, and peaceful world" by subsidizing stories about dads getting barred from mommies' groups? Is this what all the fuss is about?

The problem is that yes, newspapers underwrite important, expensive journalism that in many cases falls through the cracks in the pageview-obsessed, run-and-gun environment of online publishing. But that's perhaps five percent of what the average paper does. Maybe ten or fifteen. But it's a fraction. The rest of it is rewriting press releases, spouting opinions, reviewing things, and telling people what's on television and when—things the internet is exceptionally good at. CNC has loudly proclaimed that it is going to take up the slack and "restore" journalism's "true values," but, to judge by its first outing, all it's doing is creating a mini-newspaper—one solid story surrounded by a bunch of fluff that you could get anywhere. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with fluff, it's just that no one is raising alarms about the lack of quality writing about art museums and sports and opinions about poor people as newspapers decline.

If the idea of nonprofit journalism and innovative ways of paying for and distributing important reporting is going to succeed, it's going to have to actually produce important reporting. And if former newspapermen are going to lay claim to journalism's future by launching projects aimed at restoring its values, they ought to come up with something better than one good muni story.

UPDATE: Jim Schachter, editor of digital initiatives for the Times, writes in to make a good point that we hadn't considered—the Times asked CNC to provide a mix of serious and fluffy stories. So it was the Times, and not CNC, that wanted the mini-newspaper. We still don't understand why the MacArthur Foundation has to step in to help pay for the fluff the Times is asking for, or where that fluff fits into the CNC's journalism-saving rhetoric. But good point nonetheless:

Perhaps your dart is a bit misaimed. We asked the Chicago News Cooperative to give us a mix of content, because we're trying to come up with a formula for adding local news to The Times that prompts people to keep their subscriptions or start one if they're not buying our paper now. The tough story at the center of today's report, about the parking meter deal, is representative of what CNC means to be about. And, to be fair, so is Jim Warren's humane and pointed column.

I'm expecting to see a lot more afflicting of the comfortable and comforting of the afflicted from Jim O'Shea and his crew over the coming months.