Columbia University President Lee Bollinger took to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal this morning to talk about the future of the media, it’s financial situation – and recommending that maybe the federal government should step in to assist these organizations.
By the second paragraph, I can already see where I’m going to have a small issue with Mr. Bollinger:
At the same time, however, the financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core. The proliferation of communications outlets has fractured the base of advertising and readers. Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically and foreign bureaus have been decimated. My best estimate is that there are presently only a few dozen full-time foreign correspondents from the U.S. covering all of China, despite the critical importance of that nation to our future.
He’s missing a word in that first sentence. It should read U.S. institutional press. Bollinger discussed the idea of the institution throughout the rest of his Op-Ed, and then points to public media organizations within our country (PBS, NPR) as well as others on the international scale (BBC). The balance, he commented, between federal, mixed systems does not mean that the words would be controlled by the feds – the First Amendment would be safe, in his view, because of the same firewall that exists between a newspapers sales and news desks already.
My thought is not a “only the strong should survive” mentality towards the media world. While worldwide bureaus are shrinking, there are so many other realms of journalism that are expanding. The institution is changing, but the citizen footprint is making sure that there are boots on the ground covering stories as they happen – the same technology that is shifting the journalism world and splintering it into a fractured base also is making seemingly myriad contributors to help report those stories.
The reason for a foreign bureau is to ensure first-hand news gathering at a level of access that was fairly expensive except for those major media conglomerates. But that access isn’t nearly as expensive anymore, and it isn’t as high of a barrier of entry. Significant news gathering can be done on a leaner budget by working with the citizen journalists – even in developing regions.
In terms of local journalism, there have been several other models that still provoke the inquisitive and democratic process on the non-profit and crowdsourced model (most notably, in my opinion, would be Spot.us). This isn’t time to run to the Capitol and ask for a check. It’s a time to think about how to make technology work.
Of course, the irony of all of this could be that the link to the above Op-Ed may end up being behind a paywall on the WSJ site. Nothing could be more fitting for an opinion of the nature of Bollingers. The power of tradition, keeping the idea in.