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How journalism is in search of its iPod solution

It’s no secret that journalism is struggling. News deserts exist where local publications have folded, and in other places corporate ownership has replaced hometown family-owned newspapers. Policy that reaches back to the Nixon administration and beyond played its part.

Make no mistake, it’s not a partisan thing: Every U.S. president has had his hand in dismantling our free press. From Ronald Regan’s ending of the Fairness Doctrine, which applied to broadcast licenses, to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act, Barack Obama’s arguably excessive use of the Espionage Act and Donald Trump’s outright contempt for journalists with his oft-used expression “fake news,” presidents from both sides of the aisle have had their hands in how American media operates.

There’s a lot of room to point fingers at American systems. Brian Karem’s book, “Free the Press: The Death of American Journalism and How to Revive It,” is a good place to start for a deep dive through history on those points. Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for the book jacket.

The rise of the internet also chipped away at how the public consumes their news. Newspaper resources that used to pay for quality journalism have all but disappeared. If you’re looking for a job, you no longer buy a newspaper, you search job portals and apps. Public notices have shifted to websites and ad sales have shrunk.

The newsrooms shrunk with it. Now, at least for the newspaper where I work, our focus has sharpened. We aim to provide our community with the local content that’s meaningful and important to their daily lives.

Also, with the rise of the internet, it seems we now have two different types of readers:

The reader who grew up with newspapers is frustrated to see print publications shrinking and their news days-old. Breaking news in a print newspaper no longer happens. This population feels forgotten and irrelevant as the news cycle focuses on its digital audience. Print subscriptions and the advertisers that support the paper’s production plummet. It’s an expected demise.

The reader who grew up in the internet age has a different problem. They expect to read quality journalism for free. Hitting a paywall is a nuisance, and many discover what they want to learn or read from links shared on social media. A digital subscription as cheap as $1 for six months is a hard sell. That is not a sustainable business model.

Nonprofit investigative journalism organizations have popped up across the country and they fill a real need in our communities. When communities no longer have a journalist sitting in every courtroom or city council meeting, we have people in power not being held to account. Access to public records and scrutiny of public policy is imperative. Lack of resources to provide that at the local level is an effective ding against our free press. Though nonprofit journalism is a welcomed stopgap, it cannot be the solution. Nonprofit work tends to shine a light on the gaps in our systems.

Journalism is in search of its iPod. Let me explain. Remember that at the turn of the century, as the internet age dawned and music lovers burned playlists on blank CDs, two young people came along and developed a file-sharing system called Napster: file-sharing software with ethical issues that didn’t consider digital rights of the artist. It had a fast and profound effect on the music industry. iTunes and the iPod revolutionized how we consume music.

Journalism and how America consumes its news is in the thick of it now. In some ways social media is our Napster. Like the music industry, song quality and delivery expectations are subjective. But you won’t find journalists performing on “America’s Got Talent.”

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. Here’s hoping America values its free press as much as its music and better distribution solutions begin to surface.

— Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a wife, mother and award-winning opinion columnist.

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