Jul 1 2009

Who Pays for Journalism in the Post-Print Era?

Crumbling corporate finance and the future of news

Photo Credit: Savetheinternet.org

Photo Credit: Savetheinternet.org

Newspapers are faltering. Their traditional economic base is continually being eroded by the Internet, and this trend will only increase with time. The lot of print newspapers is unlikely to improve, and the sooner journalists and those who care about the press accept this foregone conclusion, the better. Because there is a critical question confronting journalism: When the publishing giants fall, who will pay the reporters?

Text-based journalism needs a new business model, one that supports public interest stories and maintains financial stability, without relying overwhelmingly on large-scale corporate advertising contracts. As recently noted by Nation columnist Eric Alterman (5/11/09): “It’s painful to admit, but admit it we must: We have no more hope today of saving the ‘newspaper business’ than we do the ‘telegraph business.’ What is needed—pronto—is a plan to save the collection and dissemination of the news itself.”

To heed this call and move towards a new news paradigm requires breaking with what science writer Steven Berlin Johnson calls “the old industrial, top-down models” of the press (StevenBerlinJohnson.com, 3/14/09). The current revolution in news production marks a decentralization of power; what has been in the hands of those who could afford printing presses and broadcast equipment is now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection and a PC.

This shift is characterized by law professor Yochai Benkler (New Republic, 3/4/09) as “a networked model that integrates a wider range of practices into the production system: market and nonmarket, large-scale and small, for-profit and nonprofit, organized and individual.” Which brings us back to the question of who will pay. As Benkler points out, there are numerous options.

Citizen journalism

One of the most visible and radical models coming out of the online mediascape is called a “collaborative,” “open” or “volunteer-driven” network, meaning that anyone can contribute content—generally on an unpaid basis. Prominent examples include Wikipedia and the progressive political blog Daily Kos. Collaborative networks invert the traditional balance of power, putting knowledge production firmly into the hands of the many. In the 2008 presidential election, “Daily Kos provided in-depth surveys and field reports on state races that the [New York] Times would never have had the ink to cover,” Johnson says (Steven BerlinJohnson.com, 3/14/09). Direct public participation is the lifeblood of the open-network design.

When Jane Average starts reporting the news, it’s called “citizen journalism,” and some argue that personal bloggers are already doing a better job at reporting on community affairs than the mainstream press. “They can offer more fine-grained local coverage than the [Washington Post] precisely because they clearly aren’t going to earn a living by doing so, which frees them to just do the coverage and not worry about the revenue model,” according to blogger Matthew Yglesias (Think Progress, 5/7/09).

For all its democratic benefits, however, Yglesias points to one of the movement’s riskier propositions: Perhaps inadvertently, it suggests that journalism should happen for free. No one needs to pay salary or benefits to a specialized group of writers and editors, because the news can be reported by anyone, at any time, from any place.

While citizen journalism adds valuable insight and perspective to current affairs—and no doubt acts as a counterpoint to the corporate telling of events—it is not a replacement for professional reporters. Gathering information takes time, whether it means talking to sources or combing through documents, and few people who aren’t independently wealthy can set aside the weeks or sometimes months it can take to break a major story. The way to ensure that people (not just a handful of rich bloggers) are consistently putting in the necessary hours is to pay them. Remuneration for time is a crucial assurance for investigative journalism.

That also explains why much of the material that wends its way into the blogosphere’s conversation is drawn from professionally reported pieces—a relationship that has been characterized as “parasitic.” This means that, at its source, much citizen journalism is still being partially underwritten by the deep pockets of the corporate press. Even if the writing comes free, the information on which it is based is often paid for by a traditional news outlet.

Hybrid models

Some organizations are staking a middle ground between traditional newsgathering and participatory techniques, as well as between for- and nonprofit business models. Off the Bus is the brainchild of the popular liberal news blog the Huffington Post and New York University’s New Assignment, run by prominent public journalism advocate Jay Rosen. While the site featured citizens’ writings about the 2008 presidential campaign, their work was vetted and edited by a team of professionals. With training, some of the most apt contributors were groomed as editors.

“What we did won’t replace what traditional newsrooms do,” explains Amanda Michel, the project’s executive director (CJR, 3/5/09), “but if taken seriously and used properly, this pro-am model has the potential to radically extend the reach and effectiveness of professional journalism.”

One of the most compelling arguments for this kind of integrated approach, particularly in a time of economic recession, is that it’s cheap. “More than 5 million people read [Off the Bus] coverage in October 2008, and our tab for 16 months of nationwide collaborative journalism was just $250,000,” writes Michel. The project’s funding arrangements were as innovative as its reporting strategies, supported by both direct philanthropic donations and a for-profit business: While New Assignment, a non-profit foundation that funds “high-quality, original reporting,” paid for all the direct project costs, the Huffington Post provided office space, hosted the site on its network and provided “crucial promotional space” on its front page, according to Rosen.


Non-profit investigative journalism

Other kinds of relationships are also being forged between mainstream outlets and specialized non-profit journalism outfits. ProPublica, a non-profit devoted to investigative journalism, has developed stories with numerous newspapers, magazines, online publications and television programs, including the New York Times, 60 Minutes, Salon and Reader’s Digest.

For example, in June 2008 ProPublica teamed up with 60 Minutes (6/22/08) to reveal how $500 million taxpayer dollars had gone into funding a Bush-era Arab-language television and radio station that ended up airing anti-American messages and calling for the death of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. More recently, the organization co-published a series of articles with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (4/26/09), the Albany Times Union (4/27/09) and the Denver Post (4/22/09) that exposed how drilling for natural gas has poisoned drinking water supplies in numerous states. In January of this year, ProPublica journalists joined with the Nation magazine (1/5/09) to publish a harrowing cover story about the impunity faced by white vigilantes who shot at least 11 African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A series exploring the failures of the “U.S.’s patchwork unemployment insurance system” started broadcasting in June with NPR’s Marketplace (6/3/09).

The organization received a core, multi-year donation of $10 million annually from the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, as well as other contributions (New York Times, 10/15/07). This arrangement frees it from reliance on advertisers and government grants, and the group supports a full newsroom of reporters and editors dedicated to ferreting out these time-consuming and labor-intensive stories. Everyone is paid for their working hours, which leads to depth and consistency in reporting. Also, through its partnerships with mainstream outlets, ProPublica’s pieces get widespread dissemination, a level of exposure that would be hard to otherwise match. The funding arrangement does, however, leave it vulnerable in the long term.

Another similarly structured organization is the Center for Independent Media, which uses contributions from foundations and donors to host a series of progressive state-based political news websites. It also pays its writers, editors and staff. The center’s mission is to transpose the reporter’s skills from newsprint to computer screens through an “independent online news network in the public interest” (New Journalist.org, 6/5/09). The writers at the Washington Independent, the group’s national portal, describe themselves as “the ink-stained wretches of the digital era.”

Some sites have already received industry praise. Colorado Independent reporters won 14 awards from the state’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2008, while a reporter at the Minnesota Independent received a public affairs award from the University of Minnesota’s journalism school.


Reader-funded journalism

A different advertiser-free model was launched by the NewStandard, a now-defunct site that described itself as “a traditional-style hard-news publication with a new, progressive twist” (NewStandard News.net). Dedicated to focusing on matters of real significance from the perspective of those most affected—the viewpoint of the worker or the soldier rather than the corporate boss or the general—the NewStandard was funded entirely by its readers. It supported six employees and paid freelancers for their writing, though the staff “subsidized the publication by working unspeakable hours, often at well below minimum wage,” the site noted in its post-mortem.

The downfall of this member-supported group is not a straightforward story of bankruptcy, however. The organization had no trouble collecting just shy of $200,000 from its readers in 2006, six months before it folded. While that budget was insufficient, the group’s success in raising significant funds from a small group of readers suggests that with a bigger audience base, it could have survived.

But the NewStandard failed to increase traffic to its site beyond a few thousand hits per day. “We knew that without links or reprints from other media outlets or a huge promotions budget, it would be nearly impossible for any tiny project to gain the readership we needed,” the site concluded. While the outlet only lasted about four years (2003-07), it still provides a useful alternative template for funding journalism, suggesting that an audience can support hard-hitting reporting—if that audience is big enough.

For Off the Bus, the Center for Independent Media and other comparable organizations, the non-profit business model carries inherent risks. Public donations, grants and gifts are liable to fluctuate over time, and major donors may decide to put their bucks elsewhere. In fact, both the Minnesota Independent and the Colorado Independent made significant staffing cuts in the wake of the 2008 presidential election.

While freed of their bonds to advertisers, non-profits are still often tied to foundation or government grants or corporate sponsorship, which leaves them vulnerable to the same kind of manipulation that plagues the corporate press.

And it may still be possible to turn a buck on an ad-driven model in the new media landscape. Small-scale commercial news sites embody some of the old and some of the new; they “are able to operate at much lower cost than small papers of the past while maintaining high journalistic professionalism,” notes Benkler (New Republic, 3/4/09). These operations tend to be run by professional journalists, who attempt to garner a loyal enough base to draw in advertising dollars sufficient to cover their operation costs and to make a (maybe meager) profit. The extremely low overhead associated with online publishing has led to some notable success stories, such as Politico, Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post.

It is difficult, though, to point to many journalists currently making a living this way. The Huffington Post does not pay its writers for stories published on the site, while Politico makes much of its revenue from a small print edition (New York Times, 9/22/08). Without a sizable and stable funding base, it may be challenging for these start-ups to maintain quality staff over time, and to provide sufficient resources for investigative pieces and foreign reporting.

The truth is that no one knows what comes next. We can be cautious or hopeful, but this is a time of profound social change with unsure outcomes for the shape and form of the news. Comparing this era to the period just after the popularization of Gutenberg’s printing press (Shirky.com, 3/13/09), new media professor Clay Shirky asks:

“If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as Craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.


Candice O’Grady is a freelance writer and former FAIR intern living in New York.