American Philanthropy: the Answer to the Worldwide Journalism Crisis
On both sides of the Atlantic, the press faces a budget crisis. This is not only due to the economic crisis that has affected all industries, but also lower advertising revenue as the internet has become consumers’ first choice for free news content. Why would anyone pay for news any longer?
In the US as well as in Europe, this has led dozens of journalists, photographers and designers to be laid off. In many cases, investigative journalism itself is often “laid off.” Field reporting becomes limited to editors who send their ever-younger employees off to the events where an easy quote can be attained: a fire here, a cat in a tree over there, a murder, and perhaps an interview with the city mayor or captain of industry. But what about Bernstein and Woodward, the icons of what journalism should be: a counterbalance to social and political powers?
Before I tackle that question, I think it is important to take another trend into consideration. While newspapers have to economize, companies and governments tend to hire ever more communication officers. These people aim to convey their own message—they shape instead of respond to the media—and keep their leaders from direct contact with the press. I encountered a very interesting example of this particular situation during a visit to the Memphis local newspaper called the Commercial Appeal during my travels as a European Marshall Memorial Fellow. Just last week, another five reporters lost their jobs in the newsroom.
The Commercial Appeal has to deal with great social and racial questions in Memphis, but also with one powerful company that basically governs the city: the logistical multinational FedEx. What FedEx wants, FedEx gets. Every politician in Memphis knows it. Fedex is responsible for tens of thousands of jobs, sports stadiums, charities, community buildings, and it contributes to education and culture. It is, without a doubt, of vital importance what FedEx does in Memphis. No politician could bring about the same positive results.
Thus, the company has acquired a lot of political power —power that, from my perspective, belongs to the people and not to commerce. At the Commercial Appeal, only one reporter is responsible for FedEx. The editor- in- chief told us during our EMMF visit that this is not enough to counterbalance the entire communications department that FedEx employs. There is no time for critical analysis or thorough investigation. Actually, his paper’s reportage of FedEx can only be graded by a B-, he said.
But what is to be done about it this situation? The question pivots on how a democracy can preserve checks and balances, and how powerful people, institutions, and companies can be held responsible in a world where a reliable press is in the decline. If people do not want to pay for newspapers anymore, perhaps the way forward involves making a contribution to a specific fund for investigative journalism.
My MMF trip has heightened my awareness of the power of the American practices of philanthropy, grantmaking, and fundraising. In contrast to Europe, Americans might be able to fund an initiative that supports investigative journalism to solve this information crisis. Can anyone help the Commercial Appeal to raise enough money to report on FedEx in the future at an “A” grade level?
Laura van Baars, a reporter for the Trouw Daily, is a 2012 European Marshall Memorial Fellow from the Netherlands
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.