Great minds think

Chad Raphael

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University

Raphael teaches Technology and Communication, History and Theory of News, Communication Law, and Environmental Communication, and his research has covered political communication, journalism, public deliberation, media and civic engagement.

Q: How would you characterize the state of journalism?

There are a lot of metaphors that have been used to try to describe that crisis, but many of them ignore the real diversity of journalism in America. Journalism isn't "under attack" or "dying," because there's still strong demand for professionally-produced news and many healthy news organizations. Not all journalists have been reduced to being hamsters on a treadmill, trying to keep up with the 24-second news cycle. Not all of them are bloviating pundits - while traditional news organizations have cut reporters, there are still a lot of them out there. And the Internet has allowed more people from other professions and some decent amateurs to contribute original reporting.

Journalism today is like a field in late winter. Some hardy perennials, like National Public Radio and The Wall Street Journal, are still standing strong. Most of what was going to die in the economic freeze has withered. A few green shoots are starting to push out of the ground - experiments on the Internet with hyper-local reporting, non-profit investigative reporting, and so on. Some of them won't make it to summer, but some will.

Q: Do newspapers still have a unique role in journalism and therefore in a democratic society?

Newspapers, and the wire services they created, continue to be the main source of original reporting. Other news media still mainly depend on newspapers to research most stories, which is a lot more expensive than republishing the news, aggregating links to it, or commenting on it. So newspapers are still giving an economic subsidy to other news media and are still providing crucial news that citizens need in a democracy. But there's no necessary connection between reporting and the medium of paper. If we can figure out how original reporting can be delivered online and supported as well or better than it was in the "golden age" of newspapers, that would be no loss to journalism or democracy.

Q: Is this disruption period in journalism distinct from past disruptions (i.e., telegraph, radio, television)?

There are two big differences: technological and economic. First, when print news had to compete with radio and television, each medium found a particular niche in the overall ecology of news. Print adjusted to focus on original reporting, depth, and opinion. Radio and then television focused on providing more timely news and giving a richer sense of the experience of being at the news scene with sound and images. Older media can't adjust as easily to the Internet because it delivers just about all kinds of news as well or better than older media. Online news really can be faster, deeper, and as good or better in all other regards.

Second, when print journalism was confronted with broadcasting, the new media didn't undermine the advertising base that supported news in general as dramatically as the Internet has. Advertisers simply pay a lot less to place ads online than they do in print or broadcasting.

Q: What did traditional journalism entities fail to see about what was going on in the world in recent years?

The hunger for diverse kinds of news - ethnic and minority language news, particular kinds of business news, very local coverage, and so on ... The fact that if you offer people news for free on the Internet, you can't put the genie of free news back in the bottle easily by asking people to pay for it ... The financial crisis of 2008, which gutted advertising and hastened the decline of print subscriptions.

Q: In your opinion, what are the real-life social and political implications of the changes going on in the journalism domain?

I'm mainly concerned that journalism be able to support democracy. That means informing citizens, acting as a watchdog on powerful institutions, circulating political opinions, and fostering a conversation that connects different elements of society. We need to find new ways to pay professional journalists, not just amateurs or self-interested experts, to do a good deal of this work. We need enough journalists focused on the local, state, national, and global levels. We need to support journalists in ways that insulate them from pressure - political, economic, and even some kinds of popular pressures.

Q: What must journalism do differently?

We need to figure out the relationship between journalism and its audiences and sponsors. The crisis is about the economics of journalism, but also about its identity. What is journalism's role? Who is it for? What is the relationship of news organizations to their constituents and to power? Answer those hard questions well and enough people and organizations will be likely to pay the bills.

Q: How would you characterize the current strategy of the newspaper and journalism industry?

Throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. That's probably what they have to do.

Q: In what ways is the damage internally-caused?

One problem was the blind spot about journalistic freedom in the past. In the past, any time you mentioned the idea of alternative funding sources, including government funding, American journalists began panting about losing their independence. They could only do that by ignoring the ways in which their freedom was already circumscribed by advertisers, their corporate parents, dependence on government sources, and so on. There will always be constraints on journalistic freedom. The question is how to minimize them. One way is to develop diverse funding streams that give you checks and balances on the power of any one source of funding. Another is arm's-length relationships with government funding sources, such as the BBC had for many years.

Q: As of today, biggest concern about newspapers and journalism?

That it will fail to prepare citizens to protect democracy.

Q: If newspapers disappear, should the public care?

If original reporting is harmed, we should care. If it isn't, then we're just saving trees.

Q: How do you feel about the portfolio of new platforms like crowdsourcing, social media, blogging, wikis?

Each can make particular contributions to the news, just as radio and television gave us a fuller experience of being at a news scene. But none is a magic bullet that should replace original reporting by trained professionals. These are supplements, not replacements.

Spring 2011

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