The Future of News in New Orleans

This is an expanded version of a post that previously appeared on the Columbia Journalism Review site.

Last week’s announcement that the New Orleans Times-Picayune would be slashing its staff and cutting its print run to just three days a week has sparked a new round of debates about the future of news. But one piece has been missing in this discussion: the role of media policy.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Bunch is the latest to weigh in with his prescription for journalism in the Big Easy. He writes: "There are solutions — not easy solutions, but big solutions, and if folks have the gumption to pull off these ideas, the Big Easy could actually have better journalism and a better informed citizenry." He sees the most potential in the expansion of broadband access and the fostering of more nonprofit journalism outlets.

I agree with him on both points, but it’s important to recognize that both ideas are the subject of critical public policy debates happening right now at the local, state and federal levels. In fact, Louisiana is a microcosm of debates set to shape everything we watch, read, see and hear.

1) Internet Policy

Take, for example, the issue of bridging the digital divide. Bunch writes:

"In the case of the digital divide in New Orleans, the biggest issue isn’t lack of interest in high-speed Internet but lack of money. The pending changes at the Times-Picayune scream out for a new, large-scale and well-coordinated philanthropic effort to increase Internet access in New Orleans to levels that compare to more affluent cities."

He's right that a big part of the problem is money. But in this case, the financial woes can be traced in part to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who "refused an $80 million federal grant aimed at spreading broadband to poor, rural areas of the state."

Another part of the problem is the lack of real competition in the broadband Internet market, which has kept prices unreasonably high and service unreasonably poor in many regions around the U.S. In response, many communities have sought to establish their own municipal broadband networks. In fact, one of the nation’s models for this effort is just up the road from New Orleans in Lafayette, La. The telecom companies fought the creation of Lafayette’s municipal network tooth and nail. Now many of those same incumbent Internet service providers around the country are working to pass state legislation outlawing such networks.

While large-scale philanthropic investment in New Orleans’ broadband would be helpful and welcome, we should not mistake it for the kind of real structural change that’s needed to ensure universal access to affordable high-speed Internet. In a follow-up email exchange with Bunch, he clarified for me that his proposal was focused more on “tablets or other devices that would be closely tied to news access” than on bridging the digital divide. When it comes to fostering access to broadband and the wireless Internet, Bunch said he does see a critical role for government.

2) Nonprofit News and the IRS

The details on Jindal’s refusal to accept broadband stimulus funds come from the Lens, a New Orleans-based nonprofit journalism organization that embodies what Bunch calls the "ProPublica model." Expanding the Lens’ excellent work and supporting similar nonprofit newsrooms may potentially help offset the cuts at the Times-Picayune … but these kinds of nonprofit outlets face a thorny political fight that threaten their survival.

For almost two years, the IRS has been debating whether organizations like the Lens should be eligible for nonprofit status. The agency has a track record of approving such applications (see ProPublica, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego and the Texas Tribune, to name just a few examples). But as newspapers around the U.S. have faced cuts like those just announced at the Times-Picayune, journalists and civic entrepreneurs have launched greater numbers of online nonprofit news endeavors. The spike in applications from these groups raised red flags at the IRS, which decided to study the issue further before dealing with the current crop of applicants. Now a number of journalism groups are stuck in a bureaucratic limbo as they await a ruling on their status, making fundraising and planning for the future tricky.

I agree with Bunch that nonprofit news organizations can help fill the gaps left by the continued erosion of commercial media. But those of us who are concerned about the future of journalism in New Orleans and communities like it need to take up these political battles. In moments of transition it’s critical to have the voices of journalists weigh in on media policy debates. Otherwise we'll end up with more media policy made in our name but not in our interest, and we might not like the outcomes.

3) Public Media

While philanthropy might be enough to support the Lens over the long haul, there are likely not enough foundation dollars (or ad dollars) out there to cover the full array of issues and communities in New Orleans. There is another key player in New Orleans’ journalism scene that deserves mention: public broadcasting. Eleven public radio stations and six public television stations serve communities across Louisiana. While he doesn’t address public media in his piece, Bunch later explained to me that he envisions public media as “connected with the ProPublica-style nonprofit I envisioned.”

Obviously public media is engaged with its own policy struggles at the federal level, but it should also be noted that Louisiana has cut more than two million dollars in funding for public broadcasting in the last five years. When considered alongside the Times-Picayune cuts and the digital divide, we begin to see that the news and information challenges facing New Orleans are diverse and urgent.

In his conclusion, Bunch writes: "I don’t think philanthropy (or heaven forbid, government aid … no thank you!) alone could solve New Orleans’ journalism crisis."

I agree with at least part of that sentiment. There is no silver bullet and neither philanthropy, nor government aid, nor commercial media will provide the full extent of news and information our communities need. We should all be working toward a more diverse and dynamic media system. But the media system we currently have didn't emerge in a vacuum. It is the result of local, state and federal policies. If we want to reimagine a different future we have to work to reimagine those policies too.

Original photo by Flickr user NS Newsflash

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good