The Reconstruction of American Journalism, a report published this week by Leonard Downie, a former Washington Post editor, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia journalism professor, came at an opportune time. On Monday, the New York Times announced it would buy out or sack 100 of its 1,200 newsroom employees by the end of the year. As US newspapers go, that is getting off easy. Some venerable papers, such as the Boston Globe, have lost about half their news employees.

For all the routine complaints, the commercialisation of news in the 20th century was one of the best things that ever happened to newspapers. Anyone with a product to market paid a kind of public-information tax, through newspaper advertising. But news and advertising came unlinked as they migrated to cyberspace. Online revenues are not big enough to permit old-style news gathering. The consequences will be dire and they are as yet mostly invisible. The internet is still exploiting the human and physical capital built up in the old-media economy. That capital will not be renewed in coming generations.

Most of those who lament the passing of newspapers see it as not just a cultural but, potentially, a political disaster. Messrs Downie and Schudson are in that tradition. The French call their schools “mills of citizenship” – to fulfil one’s duties in a republic, one must be educated. Americans aim a bit lower – to fulfil one’s duties, one must be “informed”. The Post Office Act of 1792 offered cheap postal rates to news-sheets – in effect a subsidy for news, for which Messrs Downie and Schudson would like to find modern equivalents. Some of their ideas are excellent: allowing news agencies to incorporate themselves as tax-free foundations (as many highly political magazines do in a rather bogus way now). Some are questionable: an increase in philanthropic giving to news organisations and a bigger role for universities. Some are dubious: a federally endowed fund for local news.

The authors are not preoccupied with keeping the status quo, nor are they sentimental about newspapers. What they want to protect is a specific kind of public-interest journalism as it has existed since roughly the 1960s, when new social movements and habits of defying authority brought a new genre of “independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis and community knowledge”. The monopoly position that certain big-city dailies in the US won in the 1960s provided the economic basis for this kind of journalism – something the authors acknowledge, but do not dwell on enough.

Other writers have been pessimistic about reproducing anything like old-style journalism in the internet era. “Many people have been expecting the successors of newspapers to emerge on the web,” the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr wrote in the New Republic last spring. “But there may be no successor.”

The report’s authors are more sanguine about the green shoots of alternative journalism. They think, rightly, that journalists can learn from the country reports of Human Rights Watch or the national bird counts of the Audubon Society, both of which are gathered through the steady input of local correspondents. What the authors call “pro-am” reporting, in which professional journalists rely on non-professional informants, can also be useful. On the other hand, it is not exactly new – it is a high-tech version of the Mass Observation movement of 1930s Britain.

The authors have high hopes for ventures such as the St Louis Beacon (made up of journalists laid off from the St Louis Post-Dispatch) and the Watchdog Institute of San Diego (drawing on journalists laid off from the Union-Tribune). Are the hopes justified? Or are they just the journalistic equivalent of displaced-persons camps, a one-time labour windfall that can be easily exploited? Certainly, there will be no big pool of idle journalists of equivalent calibre to staff such organisations in the future.

Messrs Downie and Schudson may be barking up the wrong tree. Public-interest journalism is one of the least threatened kinds of reporting in our time. “Accountability journalism” is safer than, say, book reviewing, because partisanship will provide it. (Consider the scurrilous “investigative report” that a television station owned by Silvio Berlusconi tried to carry out last week against a judge who ruled against Berlusconi in a bribery case.) Activists will always keep people informed. The report notes the success of the Center for Independent Media, founded in 2006 with the mission of promoting “actionable impact journalism” from the left. The many philanthropists involved in journalism tend to be successful businessmen with an attention to results. The authors note that projects for investigative journalism have taken a disproportionate share of charitable funds. There is a danger, far from absent in the report, of measuring the worth of journalism by the number of prosecutions it results in.

The authors hope the US government will give a fillip to such projects through a programme resembling national endowments for the arts and humanities. The important thing, they write, is that there be mechanisms “to insulate the resulting journalism as much as possible from pressure, interference or censorship”.

But the idea that the taxpayer ought to have a say in what he pays for is central to democracy itself. If it is democracy the authors want to protect, and not just a métier, then insulating such a programme from pressure could work against the very ideals the authors proclaim.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

More columns at www.ft.com/caldwell

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