Monday, September 6, 2010


Anyone who thinks that "journalism is dead" ought to have a chat with Jon Funabiki! Or just listen to the new podcast episode wherein I talk with him. Jon -- that's him in the photo, and his full bio is here -- has been around the media block. For 17 years he was a reporter and editor with the San Diego Union, as well as various ethnic and community media; he worked at the Ford Foundation, where he was in charge of grantmaking initiatives in journalism; and he's now a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, and executive director of its Renaissance Journalism Center.

As widely covered (and demonstrated) in the press over the past few years, newspapers are in trouble! Many papers have folded, shrunk in size, eliminated book reviews or other sections, or gone online. Tough luck for lovers of print publications, but do we really need newspapers anymore, given all the new media we have? Should we really preserve traditional media if it's just for the sake of tradition? And for that matter, should we be creating new media just for the sake of innovation itself? At the Renaissance Journalism Center, the point of whatever they do -- with traditional or new media -- is always to serve, strengthen and empower communities.

This raises the question of why the Center or anyone else should intervene on behalf of a community. You could make a fair argument that the community itself will decide what kinds of media it wants. If a neighborhood newspaper goes under because no one is reading it, then it has gone under for good reason, and "the community" may or may not demand some other kind of media. At first blush, this sounds a lot like a free-market argument about how "the market" will say (and get) what it wants. "The market" creates its own solutions. 

The problem is in conflating "the community" and "the market." A "community" is the actual or potential readers of a given publication. On the other hand, the "market" includes not just those current and would-be readers, but also advertisers, publishers, regulatory agencies, and so on -- forces that have far more power than your average reader, or perhaps even more than the entire readership of a given publication. And the market's interests are not always the same as those of the readers. 

By way of example, let's take the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper, which Jon talks about in the podcast. It was a for-profit print publication with a historic role in advocating for the Japanese American community. The paper folded last year. As far as "the market" is concerned, the paper's closure was a kind of solution. The paper couldn't make money, because it couldn't get enough advertising, because not enough people in the most desirable demographics were reading it. But a community -- as opposed to a market -- response would have been, well... just what happened. A groundswell of support resurrected the newspaper as a nonprofit, and the Renaissance Journalism Center is now helping them transition to be an online-only publication, and consider new audiences. The Nichi Bei Weekly, with thanks from the Center, will still be serving an important community function, albeit one that the market couldn't or wouldn't tolerate. Besides, the Renaissance Journalism Center is itself part of the communities it works with, and helps organize those communities around media that will serve them, even -- or especially -- when "the market" won't.

So please listen to the podcast, and check out the Center's website. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. I've been enjoying listening to these podcasts. Thanks, Paul!