SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Lemann, at your university, arguably the world's most prestigiuos journalism school, new students always get a pep talk on their first day from the dean about their future in the business. What are you telling them these days? That they should find a different profession?
Nicholas Lemann: (laughs) What I tell them is that journalism isn't going away. But it is reconstituting itself in a pretty fundamental way. From the standpoint of a student who wants to be a full-time employed reporter and find an entry-level job, things aren't so bad right now.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Considering the accelerating circulation losses at US newspapers and the drastic job cuts even at places like the New York Times, one might think differently.
Lemann: We're starting to place people again after a few months of deep freeze. There are a lot of journalistic startups on the Web, and a lot of our recent graduates are doing quite exciting things all over the world because there are still so many news organizations. But it's highly unlikely that you leave school and get a job with an organization and stay there your entire life until you retire.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The main reason is that the business model for print journalism isn't working anymore. Is the era of influential newspapers over?
Lemann: Metro newspapers in the Unites States are probably not going to disappear entirely. But they've almost all shrunk. That doesn't mean they'll go away or won't continue to be the dominant news provider in their communities. Newspapers may have found the bottom.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The question is, what kind of journalism remains? Your school just published a broad report on that issue, entitled "The Reconstruction of American Journalism," in which the authors fear for the future of "accountability journalism"-- reporting as a function of public service, to hold people and institutions in power accountable. Will journalists cease to be the Fourth Estate?
Lemann: "Accountability journalism" is an expensive thing to do. And it was never a given in the US. The report calls its inception a "happy accident." It wasn't originally there for the Founding Fathers, nor was it envisioned by what the US constitution calls "freedom of the press." It was a distinctive American invention that came along in fits and starts in the 19th century and turned out to be a public good.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A public good we can't afford anymore now that everything is free on the Web.
Lemann: Even if the market will not support it, society should. There's a lot of great online journalism. The Web is a great platform, but it's not self-supporting.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But society as a whole doesn't seem to be ready or aware of that.
Lemann: To me the big thing in this moment is not so much the decline of newspapers but the failure of almost everybody so far to find a way to sustain accountability journalism online.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Whose fault is that?
Lemann: We journalists are not very good at talking about what we do for other elements of society. But we don't live in a time anymore when we had big news organizations who were quite profitable and could exist on their own. We are part of a complex ecosystem with other elements of society. Even President Obama has said a couple of things about it lately. We journalists should be better than we are in making the case for ourselves about what we do and what we need.
|The Top 25 Newspapers in the US, By Circulation|
|Name||2009 Circulation*||Change from 2008*|
|1.||Wall Street Journal||2.024.269||+0.61%|
|3.||New York Times||927.851||-7.28%|
|4.||Los Angeles Times||657,467||-11.05%|
|6.||Daily News (NY)||544,167||-13.98%|
|7.||New York Post||508,042||-18.77%|
|14.||Star Tribune (Minneapolis)||304,543||-5.53%|
|16.||Plain Dealer (Cleveland)||271,180||-11.24%|
|17.||Detroit Free Press||269,729||-9.56%|
|19.||Dallas Morning News||263.810||-22.16%|
|21.||San Francisco Chronicle||251,782||-25.82%|
|24.||San Diego Union-Tribune||242,705||-10.05%|
|25.||St. Petersburg Times||240,147||-10.70%|
|Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), October 26, 2009
* April through September
Lemann: We as journalists have a very strong instinct that we want to stay far away from the public sector, with the sole exception of shield laws. However, if you say to people you want to abolish National Public Radio or public broadcasting or the BBC, the answer is, well, maybe not.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So we already have some forms of government-sponsored journalism?
Lemann: It's very striking to me that, for example, at universities there are many truth-seeking activities that the government funds that are pretty successful. Of course any funding source has the potential for the corruption of journalism. But that doesn't mean that it's fatal. It's all about how to build the protection and a firewall. For years that has worked with advertisers, too. We've gotten used to it, and it works well.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So how would this work with government funding?
Lemann: You have to read the report carefully. It's very artfully done. It doesn't propose government subsidies. It doesn't propose government control. It proposes an automated fee system, handing the fees to state councils that then make fairly sustained funding commitments to news reporting. There are a lot of protections built in there. There's a distinction between state media and public media, as many other countries show, including Germany. American journalists are too quick to jump to the conclusion that they're the same, and that everytime you have a funding scheme you end up with "Pravda."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The report also suggests turning newspapers into nonprofit organizations, increasing financial support by philanthropic foundations, and cooperating more with public radio and television and universities. How plausible is all that?
Lemann: Some are starting to happen already. We had a really wonderful reaction to the report, and follow-up activities are already planned. All these suggestions, including the fund for local news, are eminently achievable.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Also, the report suggests a more interactive approach between traditional print reporters, Web writers, such as bloggers, and even readers. Some journalists don't like that.
Lemann: It's already happening. We're getting to common ground where the Web people no longer claim that if all journalists would disappear tomorrow there would be just as much news out there. There seems to be a clear recognition that there's a real need here.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Then again, recent stories like the brouhaha about the fake drama of Balloon Boy don't help strengthen the image of traditional journalists.
Lemann: This is something I found a little frustrating. If you have a pure market-based journalism system, then stories like Balloon Boy will inevitably rise to the top. The reason is that there are pure market forces at work, and this is what people apparently want. So if you say on the one hand that public support for journalism is unthinkable and that journalism must live entirely in the market system, but then on the other hand you reject the results as worthless, that puts us in a bind.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Balloon Boy is the future?
Lemann: Journalists should always try to make their work engaging to a broad audience. But if you say the only sense is the market test, then that pushes the needle in one direction. The fear in the other direction is that it leads to boring news. Journalism has to exist in a dynamic tension between the two of them.
Interview conducted by Marc Pitzke
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