Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Does the USA need a BBC?

Most weeks I listen to the BBC podcast of From Our Own Correspondent, a series of dispatches from their reporters around the world. The show was first broadcast in 1955 and growing up in England I used to listen to it every week on the radio with my Dad. Later, when I traveled in Asia, it was a great thrill to tune-in on shortwave to the BBC World Service and hear the same show in Burma, Nepal, or Thailand.

Recently I've listened to a BBC reporter recount giving evidence at the Hague against war criminals in Kosovo, and another from Madagascar talking about a simmering civil war. In the last few weeks journalists have joked about jokes being banned in Morocco and the bewildering experience of taking a very sick child to a U.S. hospital. The reporting is uniformly excellent.

Meanwhile, US journalism is falling apart. The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer are in bankruptcy, as is the Tribune Group. Denver's Rocky Mountain News and the Christian Science Monitor closed, and the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe are both at risk of closing soon too. The New York Times, saddled with enormous debt, had to borrow even more money to stay afloat. Along with all this, most newsrooms are shedding hundreds of jobs: 200 at the Miami Herald, 150 at the Atlanta Journal, 90 at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times, is being asked to find $20M is savings but even this won't make it a profitable enterprise. The economics of conventional print journalism nolonger work: most major newspapers loose money. The Gannet News group, which owns the nation's largest circulation daily USA Today, recently saw revenues decline 50 percent in 2008. The online model can't sustain labor-intensive news gathering, and other ideas for creating a sustainable business model sound, at best, far-fetched.

All this might be good for the environment (newsprint consumption is down from an estimated 12 million tons in the 1990s to about 7 million tons now), but it's terrible for everything else. At the risk of sounding like I'm hyperventilating, this is terrible for democracy.

Will online media take up the slack? Some think it's perfectly fine for the dead tree publishing business to die, arguing that the new openness and community-driven nature of online news will create a more democratic, more participatory journalism. Others disagree. David Simon (best known as the writer behind The Wire and other TV shows, but also a longtime Baltimore reporter and author of the excellent Homicide), sees conventional beat reporting dying, and not being replaced. Nick Carr, in a blog post titled “The amorality of Web 2.0”, talks about the cult of the amateur:

"The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call "the mainstream media." Here's O'Reilly: "While mainstream media may see individual blogs as competitors, what is really unnerving is that the competition is with the blogosphere as a whole. This is not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business models. The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls 'we, the media,' a world in which 'the former audience,' not a few people in a back room, decides what's important."

Some people see the wisdom of the crowd, others see the madness of the mob. I don't think there's any doubt that so-called new media is not a like-for-like replacement of old media. It is different, and it is probably poorer. In the first place it is largely parasitic: it feasts on news from other places, rarely creating anything truly new, never mind newsworthy, itself. It is opinion-driven. It narrowcasts. Much of it lives off esoterica, or thrives in an echo-chamber of point-counterpoint with no end, and with very little purpose. In encourages specialization, which can quickly slide into division. It plays to the home crowd, the convert, the zealot.

Or at least it can seem this way.

So, what's the solution? My premise is that good journalism is a civic necessity, and it's a view shared my many countries. The British Broadcasting Corporation is funded by a tax on all television sets, and is essentially a government-run entity. The Brits aren't alone: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation are the same. These non-commercial public broadcasters aspire to lofty goals; the BBC's royal charter includes “sustaining citizenship and civil society.” The BEEB runs several televison channels, a handful of national radio stations, and a multilingual website that is one of the most trafficked in the world.

The idea of taxpayer-funded journalism may seem entirely un-American. But as I watch US journalism collapse, I wonder if it isn't time the USA had a BBC.

No comments: