Media troubles a problem for democracy, says Slate’s Weisberg

February 24, 2009

Jacob Weisberg and Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones.

Jacob Weisberg and Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones.

February 24, 2009 — Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of Slate, looked at web media and the future of journalism at the Shorenstein Center’s brown-bag lunch. Director Alex S. Jones launched the discussion with the observation that in today’s online environment, there is “gigantic success without profitability,” citing examples such as YouTube and Facebook. The challenge facing the media now has become a theme in the brown-bag series: how to build a sustainable economic model that will support the news.

Weisberg countered with the proposal that the media is facing not just a business problem, but a fundamental problem of democracy. Explaining the important the role of the fourth estate, Weisberg said, “The independent check on government power is as or more important than the issue of an informed public.” It’s hard to imagine a democracy without a vigorous and independent press, Weisberg said, but that’s what might happen if the media continues to hold to a financial model that’s no longer effective.

The nonprofit model, Weisberg said, is an interesting alternative. ProPublica, supported by private funds, focuses on the investigative reporting that is often often reduced in budgets of news organizations. Jones mentioned that the finalists for the upcoming Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting is a ProPublica reporter whose work were only possible because news organizations invested in in-depth reporting.

Weisberg looked back to when newspapers were profitable and explained that “the profits were being used to subsidize newsgathering.” The owning families “felt there was public trust in being a leading news organization, in being a check on government, informing the public.” While newspaper profitability has suffered, Weisberg said that the “real worry is not the newspaper itself, but the newsgathering function we need in a democracy. What we need to preserve is not the form factor but the content.”

As for charging for online news content, Weisberg thinks that would only reduce the number of readers. Slate charged for content early on, Weisberg recalled, “but we gave it up after a year.” The idea of paying isn’t what alienates readers, Weisberg said, it’s the nuisance that is the biggest deterrent. “Behind the pay wall,” a news site is hidden from search engines and thus “isn’t part of the conversation,” Weisberg said.

One suggestion Weisberg had was a donations model, similar to NPR‘s, in which readers could donate at will. This model would keep the organization accessible to the largest audience possible.

This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Leighton Walter Kille, both of the Shorenstein Center.