A World Without Journalism Reviews?
Like everyone else, AJR grapples with the recession.
By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
If you are a subscriber to this magazine, then chances are you are a news executive, be it mere mogul or king of the night city desk. And if you are a news executive, chances are this magazine at one time or another has made you angry enough to fling it across your glass-lined cubby.
Maybe we accused you of putting numbers ahead of news. Maybe we questioned your judgment on a deadline decision. Maybe we asked where all your government reporters had gone.
It won't make you feel any better if we say we did it because we care about you.
But we did. And we do.
We're a journalism review. That's our job, to keep an eye on the conduct and direction of the news media. We at American Journalism Review have been at this work for more than a quarter century now, and we like to think we've made a little difference for the better.
But as I've maintained in this space before, publishing a journalism review is no way to make money. Not that making money was ever our goal here, exactly, but making enough to keep the wolves (or at least the creditors) at bay would be nice. Yet it's a constant struggle. As much hard work as is manifest in these pages every issue, just as much hard work occurs behind the scenes to find enough revenue to keep the magazine going.
The fundamental problem is that it costs a good bit more to produce this magazine than we take in from conventional advertising and circulation sources. That shortfall must be underwritten. And largely through the enlightened patronage of important philanthropies--foremost among them the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and Freedom Forum--we have been able to bridge that financial divide. For this support, as well as that of our loyal subscribers and advertisers, we have been most appreciative.
Still--and stop me if you've heard this one before--the new millennium came in with the dotcom bust, a stock market crash and an advertising recession, and like you AJR is feeling the fallout. Foundation giving has declined with endowment levels, and media companies by and large have nuked their own ad budgets. Everyone in our line of work is hurting. Our friends at Columbia Journalism Review tell us they're pretty much in the same boat. And even Editor & Publisher, though more industry journal than review, is getting thinner than that Subway doofus Jared.
At AJR, the situation has caused us to make a decision that, frankly, we hoped we would never have to make. With this issue, AJR will begin publishing every other month, in alternating issues with CJR. Since 1981 we have published 10 times a year, operating essentially as a monthly with two "double" issues annually.
We have been reluctant to reduce our schedule because we much prefer the timeliness and immediacy of a monthly. But circumstances didn't leave us much choice. And while we believe this decision will allow us to stabilize our operation and continue publishing AJR for the long-term, in today's environment there are no guarantees.
The fact is that, maybe for the first time in nearly a half century, the journalism industry is looking at the distinct possibility of a world without journalism reviews.
If you are one of those people we crossed over the years, perhaps that prospect does not displease you. But I rather doubt that's the case. Folks in our line of work naturally understand the importance of the watchdog function, and an industry as influential as the American news media demands oversight just as surely as religion or education or any other important sector of our society.
Today the news media are woven into our lives like never before. America's latest war was just conducted in full view, with 24-hour running commentary and Surround Sound. Time magazine publishes a 10-page promotional orgasm on "The Matrix Reloaded"--a film produced, incidentally, by its sister operation Warner Bros. The proud New York Times is laid low by a fabulist reporter (sad to say, a former Maryland student; see "All About the Retrospect" on page 32 and Rem Rieder's column for more about that). Clearly, work like ours is timelier than ever.
To be sure, we're doing what we can to respond to this emergency. We're fundraising among friends new and old, and we're making plans with our philanthropic patrons. We're also cutting costs every way we can, trying to do the prudent things that any business would do confronted with the situation.
A world without journalism reviews? That would be a silence that speaks volumes.