Improving media capacity: Diagnosing the problems and prescribing antidotes

Editor’s note: Recent innovations—the Internet, social platforms, and mobile devices—have upended how we receive, consume, share, and interpret the news. In this FixGov series, experts weigh in on the challenges facing the industry and discuss possible ways to enhance news coverage and improve media capacity. On May 19, senior fellow E.J. Dionne convened a panel of top experts and practitioners to discuss fixing the problems facing America’s Fourth Estate.

Over the past week, FixGov has hosted a critical conversation about the changing role of media in our democratic society. The questions raised, the challenges detailed, and the risks discussed are fundamental and existential for the values nearest to the hearts of most Americans. Media, despite its sensationalist tendencies and increasingly market-centered nature, serves a central role in a healthy democracy, informing citizens and holding government officials accountable. As media models, funding, platforms, and personnel have transformed over the past few decades, many worry that the Fourth Estate is under attack and at risk of collapse.

FixGov’s Improving Media Capacity series addresses this topic head on, bringing together scholars, journalists, and editors. Through a series of blog posts, contributors summed up the problems, challenges, opportunities, and possible solutions. In addition, in a poetic reflection of how new media is transforming the way thought leaders deliver and the public receives information, EJ Dionne hosted a Spreecast to discuss the topic.

Below is a brief guide to and synopsis of the series.

In the opening post, Brad Warthen discusses both the value of local media and the serious threats it faces in a changing media environment. Local newspapers—even the best, most decorated ones—face huge budget and staff reductions, while expectations for rapid, comprehensive reporting grow. The result is a model in which democratic accountability in local government suffers. Warthen not only notes that a solution must be had but offers an interesting alternative: let the wealthy step in, save newspapers, and let them get even wealthier in the process.

Painting a similar picture about the challenges facing local news, Nathan Pippenger argues for a different solution. Pippenger holds a mainstream view that disruption and reduction in local reporting poses serious risks for democracy, accountability and transparency. But he points the blame (and finds the solution) elsewhere. Instead of ownership or investment being the catalyst for successful change in media, Pippenger argues that news consumers need to be the saviors for the industry and that a commitment to subscription is just as important as the corporate planning from a new CEO.

Anne MacKinnon weaves a beautiful narrative, using coverage of strip mining as a metaphor for the destruction of local media over the past decades. She argues that beyond the platform and the funding mechanisms, changing media dynamics also break down journalistic traditions. No longer do media outlets rely on unique actors with varied and dynamic skill sets—such as the airborne photojournalist whom she profiles in her piece. Instead, the culture within journalism is being forced away from the unique and toward the uniformity of e-journalism.

Jim Klurfeld explores a different problem. He argues that the change in media, and particularly journalists’ behaviors, have transformed society into one far less capable or equipped to consume news in a responsible, balanced, and informative way. He notes a transition among reporters away from detailing policy particulars. Instead, media has become more interested in detailing the soap-operatic side of government, more like gossip columnists rather than political reporters. He argues that educational institutions need to step in to solve the problem through both supply and demand solutions. Supply side fixes will happen through better journalistic training that focuses more on substance and hard reporting on issues that inform the public. Demand side fixes would come by way of improving news consumers’ capacity to balance sources and evaluate possible biases in reporting and presentation. It is through this comprehensive process that both media organizations and audiences respond effectively to a changing news environment.

Breaking from the theme advanced by other contributors, Trent Spiner argues that reports of the demise of journalism may be premature. He argues that journalists should not lament changing media platforms or environments as a break from tradition. Instead, they should embrace them as an opportunity to excel at their craft. If the goal of journalism is to inform the public as effectively as possible, the new media environment should be seen as a boon, as it allows reporters the chance to reach more readers faster, and though more varied means than ever before. That is a good thing for the public, for democracy—and frankly, even for journalists.

Finally, EJ Dionne assembled some of the blog contributors and others, while opening up debate to the general public through a Spreecast that explored these issues. In an enlightening and robust conversation that employed one of new media’s more innovative platforms, Dionne and his fellow participants offered critical insights and warnings about the future of journalism, painting the current period as a true crossroads in media that will determine the future of democratic society and media’s role within it.