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January 20, 2018

It's Time for a News Corps

Now, the nation's youth are, in their idealism, fleeing to farms, organic ones of course, as a way to make their mark on the new world. They are willing to shovel manure before dawn, in the belief that they are making a difference.

The organic farm internship movement — which had a good run near the top of the New York Times' most e-mailed stories list Sunday — joins education in capturing youthful enthusiasm.

Curiously, though, we see no such movement of the young in embracing the reinvention of the news, of remaking journalism in the digital age. We should. Journalism's never needed more reinvention, more passion, more youth.

Instead, even top young journalists are going in other directions.

Consider this Bloomberg article by Oliver Staley:

"The Harvard Crimson has produced 12
Pulitzer Prize winners and prepared generations of journalists
for newspaper careers during its 136 years. That wellspring of
talent is drying up as the paper’s editors now shun the field".

The
piece goes on to tell us that "just three of the 16 graduating seniors
who were on the Crimson
executive board are seeking
positions in journalism" and that the trend away from journalism, among
Crimson editors, has been pronounced for five to 10 years. 

Yes,
communication and journalism school enrollment is still up across the
country, but that enrollment number may be masking the emerging
problem.

First, much of that enrollment is devoted to the
related arts of advertising and public relations. Second, some of the
talk in the J schools is moving toward the applicability of the
journalism major to other employable fields. In fact, Tim
Gleason, dean of the University of Oregon journalism school, recently
told me, “In the past, parents used to say, ‘I’m so glad he’s a
journalism major rather than an English major.' That may change."
Third, we have a sense that much of the top journalistic talent — like
the Crimson's — is blowing away from journalism.

Curiously, the Crimson's outgoing managing editor, Paras Bhayani, is heading for Teach for America.
That says reams about the crossroads of the country's talents and the
mojo of the moment. TFA is and has been hot for several years, as
graduates have heard the calling to fix the nation's perpetually
underachieving educational system. TFA offers a challenge to new
graduates: take what you've learned and reinvent the way of education,
making a two-year-long personal commitment. It has graduated 14,000
teachers, and I've had the privilege to meet a number of them.

They embrace both the intellectual and on-the-ground challenges, and they do so with relish. 

I
believe that we've got to see the financial collapse of the news
business within the wider perspective of national change. The country,
by force and by wish, is in the midst of reinventing education. It may
soon be in the midst of reinventing health care. When we see smart, committed youth willing to move the manure along, surely we can find ways to engage them to move stories along, to push the news forward. 

Call
it Daughter of Woodstein. The Woodward-Bernstein myth, as powerful as
it was to a previous generation, is spent. The best evidence of that may be today's rehashing of the Post/Times Watergate saga; how yesterday to anyone born in the last 35 years. We need a new myth. We need tales of spirited multimedia reporters bringing back the news from Iraq and Indianapolis. 

Just for starters, let's think of it as News Corps. Yes, it's a bit close to News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's global empire, but maybe he'll support it. It borrows some almost-ancient WPA sensibility, and focuses on storytelling, but journalistic storytelling. It is this amazing set of storytelling tools — the wonders of audio and video and text,
of blogging style, of instant reader connection and involvement — that
define what should be an optimistic time, not a time of mourning. Never
before have journalists had such a set of tools arrayed before them.

The
News Corps notion, of course, would be just a piece of the puzzle.
Beyond training and empowering a new generation of newsies, we'll
need new ecosystems of training and mentoring and of distribution and
aggregation. We can see the outlines of those already, though
they hardly fully formed. 

Indeed, some of that
reinvention is starting to happen, as we look at the start-up local
news and investigative operations from coast to coast and the injections of foundation
capital into those enterprises. That reinvention is good, but we're going to need more.

We need to make news cool. We need to make
the deeper informing of communities a public good, a point that MinnPost's Joel Kramer made well in a recent Nieman Lab interview. We need to attract
some of the most energetic and innovative minds to this reinvention,
much as we need them in education, in health and in agriculture.

What News Corps would do is inject new
supply into the system, and the supply is one of key problems we have.
Those close to 10,000 newsroom jobs we've lost in the last several
years means that hundreds of thousands fewer stories are bring reported
and written this year. 

So let's start with a News Corps of 1000, and a starting wage of $35,000 a year, a decent start and parallel to what TFA provides. That's a tab of $35 million a year, a paltry sum by many measures and one that could be funded by a consortium of foundations to keep it free of government taint. News organizations, start-up and legacy, could apply for positions, promising mentorship, learning and engagement. News Corp could track the upward trajectory — the difference its stories make — that could offset the cascading gloom-and-doom clicking down of the traditional news industry.

One thousand new journalists would be a start and a no-lose test. I guarantee we'd learn things about the craft of journalism that we've only conjectured about. If the 1000- newly-minted-journalist-experiment works, think about the difference that 10,000 journalists could make. At that level, we're still only talking a third of a billion a year. The American newspaper industry itself, even in its flagging state, will bring in about $36 billion this year.

Yes, Knight and a legion of other foundations (among them The James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Blandin Foundation) are stepping up to the challenges of the era, and that commitment has only been made more difficult by their recession-wounded endowments. They are now stepping beyond piecemeal funding of experimental projects to providing two- to three-year funding to build new core capacity among new news gatherers, as the recently announced California news initiative, which will operate out of the Oakland-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

I'm not convinced that we need a National Journalism Foundation, as suggested by Knight Fellow David Sasaki in November, but it's another idea that's worth considering here.

Let's look collectively at a big step. Let's look to scale. We've lost scale; now we need to gain scale and make a statement. Jump-starting supply by engaging talented and motivated young people is one way to do that.

Eventually, we figured, the woes of the news business would dawn on
the young, and that time has apparently come. They may love the idea of writing and the romance of
reporting, yet the economic realities of our time are pushing them in
other directions. Let's re-kindle the fire, knowing that a thousand flashlights poking into near and far corners of our communities is a good and timely thing.

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