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Overholser: Does Journalism Lack a Social Mission?

In a short essay at the Online Journalism Review Geneva Overholser asks: Did journalism’s business model distort journalism’s social mission?

She bases her question on a lecture by Adlai Wertman, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Overholser writes:

Confronted with the nation’s inability to resolve the many ills confronting it, Wertman told the Journalism School: “I think it’s all your fault. In my view, the political world follows journalism.” And journalism has led down the wrong paths in our failure to give attention to poverty, homelessness and other weighty and complex issues.

The profit model may be responsible for much of the problem: “There is a major difference between a mission-driven business and a business,” he said. Profit-seeking companies “quickly go from no social mission to no social responsibility.” The result has been, in Wertman’s opinion, a distorted notion of “what the public wants” when it comes to journalism, and a terribly inadequate news diet for a self-governing people.

So what’s to be done?

“If you are asking, ‘Can I create new models that are mission-driven in journalism, and make a living?’ Absolutely!” said Wertman. Start with the focus, he advised. The new models that seem to do well are very targeted.

“Donors want to know, ‘What are you going to effect?’ That’s the hardest part. Once you figure out your mission, you can do anything. And I teach, the narrower the mission, the better.”

He adds:

“Take the mission away from journalism and think more about journalism as a tool: We care about poverty, and how could we use journalism as a tool to make a difference.”

Update: This from an e-mail I received from Bill Densmore of the Media Giraffe project:

Geneva Overholser reports on a talk at Univ. of Southern California. If (a) one assumes that a social mission (as in fostering participatory democracy) and profit maximization (as in Wall Street-owned news organizations) are incompatible, then, Overholser suggests (b) It may be time to move toward a “niche” reporting model in which specific funders support civic journalism on topics about which they feel passion.

Densmore adds:

It’s worth comparing this insight with some of Len Witt’s work on Representative Journalism . . .. . . in which Len and some other researchers are considering whether a community (Northfield, Minn., is the test venue) might be willing to support in-depth civic journalism — a sort of geographic niche. You can follow the work of the RepJ journalist in Northfield, Bonnie Obremski, from this link.

Overholser’s idea, and the RepJ initiative are also related I think to what Paul Bass is doing in New Haven, Conn., with  his New Haven Independent local online news community. Bass runs The Independent as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, and most of his funding comes a handful of foundations who encourage specific coverage areas such as health care. This may be to some degree what Overholser is talking about.

If this is where the funding of journalism is going, how do we find the balance between this “sponsored” journalism, and outright flackery? It seems like we can, and need, to plumb that gray area and figure it out in ethical and practical terms.

Just an aside, Densmore is the second person who emailed the Overholser link and mentioned its relationship to Rep J. The first was Michael Mansur from the Kansas City Star. So maybe the Rep J idea is getting some traction.

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