When people — mostly journalists who had been laid off from corporate newsrooms — started talking about entrepreneurial journalism, I worried that we were starting to embrace what I had long resisted: that is, the idea that individual reporters needed to think about how to sell their stories as a product as much as how to save democracy.
I’ve come around.
In part, my change of heart has to do with a specific kind of entrepreneurial journalism – the nonprofit news organization. Most of them have adopted a mission to save journalism, to be a watchdog, to fill a void for democracy. (Just FYI: we at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication are in the middle of a giant study of them, so some of what I am writing about comes from that data we are collecting.)
This blog post is in response to the February 2012 Carnival of Journalism question: “What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?” I consider the recent influx of nonprofits news agencies to represent an important trend in journalism – and one that is a direct result of digital technologies, especially social media.
The evidence suggests that the organizations, which are incredibly diverse in both their funding sources and methods, are proliferating, collaborating, and becoming a significant part of the emerging media ecology right now. In 2009 they banded together into their own trade organization called the Investigative News Network, which formed with just 20 groups. Just two years later more than 60 ventures have joined INN — most of them brand new. Although I haven’t been able to find any hard statistics (anyone out there have better luck?), most anecdotal reports show a giant spike in news nonprofit births since 2008.
They assume as their platform the Web, evoke the new “mass self-communicating” citizen (a Castells term), and depend on the new network society (this one is Benkler) for their existence. Many of them utilize crowdsourcing as a reporting technique, employ data-visualization experts and populate email list serves, twitter hashtags, Facebook groups, blogs and all sorts of digitally enabled forums and venues.
To be sure, controversy, cynicism and doubts dog these groups. Many are funded by foundations or the generosity of wealthy patrons – how sustainable is such a model? Some decline to disclose where their money comes from – how can we trust the veracity of their information and the altruism of their agenda? Many have very little readership – how can a group with so little content and so little marketability hope to survive midst the glut of the information age? (In other words, the very digital technologies that enable these groups to produce and disseminate news might also be the undoing of these groups?).
These are good questions. I attended a panel on the different models for nonprofit organizations at the Wisconsin News Association conference on Thursday in Madison, WI, where we discussed all of this. Stephen Greenhut of the conservative Franklin Center had this to say (in between his defending of the Franklin Center, which refuses to say who funds them and declares itself to produce “news” from a libertarian perspective):
“We are hiring right now, but the question is long-term: I don’t think anyone knows what the new model is. The money has got to come from somewhere.”
(And then a giant question mark exists from the Internal Revenue Service, which is threatening to restrict the 501c3 nonprofit status for these organizations. This would, of course, devastate many of their operations.)
But my point is that none of these groups could even begin to offer an alternative to mainstream media without new technologies and particularly the networking effect of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. (Rr at least, it would be much much harder; I should note here that of course we have had grand, often government-subsidized nonprofits such as NPR and the Center for Public Integrity thriving for decades, but I am talking about a different, digital-dependent animal.) This ability to bypass the printing press gives someone like Andy Hall, who quit his reporting gig at The Wisconsin State Journal, the opportunity to start up a group like Wisconsin Watch. WisconsinWatch (which is housed in my building at UW-Madison) now employs four people full-time as well as three paid interns and had produced 65 major investigative reports since 2009 with a budget of nearly half a million dollars. Said WisconsinWatch’s Money and Politics Project Director Bill Lueders at Thursday’s panel talk:
I think what the Center is doing is exciting because there is both an old and a new component. This is the cutting edge of journalism right now. But I am also attracted to it because it is very committed to a very old kind of reporting… according to the standards that have been established through decades of practicing these crafts.
One audience member asked about whether the spike in nonprofit news orgs represented just another niche trend, pointing out the recent death of the Chicago News Cooperative that lost a MacAuthur Foundation grant and then had to suspend operations (among other issues, including the IRS situation). Lueders suggested the key is to attract a diversity of funders and develop multiple revenue streams.
Our research backs this up. Foundation support is not the only kind of money for these groups, who are being very creative in developing alternative sources – from contractual project work to media-market collaborations to website advertising. I predict we will see even more networking and collaborating among these new players in this industry, and better and more stable business models as they mature.
I suggest that they consider calling on the technologies responsible for their very existence in seeking those alternative funding sources in addition to other, more traditional sources. I can think of any number of digitally based funding opportunities, including: adopting a a spot.us model where audiences can elect to give money for developing investigations; an Ebyline setup where people and other media organizations can bid on finished packages; community-based models where citizens pay for access for evergreen products like some of the database work being done for these organizations’ sites.
Another key activity we are going to see more and more of is the willingness of traditional media publications to publish and disseminate the work of the nonprofits in a much more prolific manner. On the one hand, this is great for nonprofit org’s visibility; on the other hand, I worry what impact that action will have on commercial news companies’ justification to keep what investigative reporters they still have on staff.
I know many legitimate questions swirl around the agenda and the sustainability of these new business models for news. But I can’t help thinking about the words of news futurist Clay Shirky, who wrote in a 2009 blog post about the uncertainty during the time of the printing press compared to the current revolution and the next business model for the news:
We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it…We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen…For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.
I think when we look back at this time period, we will see that the nonprofit news organization served as the foundation for a significant component of watchdog reporting in the United States — thanks to these early entrepreneurs who risked their professional reputations and their livelihoods to learn and adopt the innovative digital tools to do old-school journalism in new platforms and models.
This month’s Carnival of Journalism, which is an informal group of bloggers who write about a common journalism topic every month, asks the question: Can good journalists be good capitalists? The question derives from the omnipresent tension of a commercial press operating with a mandate to be socially responsible. As a business-reporter-turned-journalist-academic teaching students who need paying jobs in the profession, I answer a cautious YES (and here, I’m also thinking: “I sure hope so!!”; otherwise I’ve spent a lot of years fervently and naively dedicated to a profession because of its democratic importance).
In this post I suggest that we also need to build significant infrastructure alongside the commercial press to provide contingencies for the dissemination of significant, relevant, balanced, accurate information circulating in our democracy — you know… in the event corporate media owners might somehow lose sight of their commitment to hosting good journalism. The good news is I think we have already begun to formalize some alternative business models.
Good Journalists, Good Capitalists
With fewer resources and fewer journalists, the commitment to socially responsible journalism can fade as the pressure to produce content increases. During one of my newsroom stints, the executive editor called a meeting to discuss pending layoffs, the shrinking news hole, and our media owner’s fiscal difficulties (“yeah, right,” we all mouthed to each other, rolling our eyes, knowing our corporation’s top executives had all just received giant bonuses). “Bulk! Bulk! Bulk!” he barked at us, referring to the “need” for the appearance of more content in the newspaper and on the site, more quickly. People could read briefs and rewritten press releases and have the feeling that they were getting a lot for their money. What could we do?
We quickly learned the art of the fast 200 words while working on our special projects. We learned to conduct interviews so that we could derive a “quick hit” out of the conversation (usually just a one-sourced piece), and then turning the discussion to what we really wanted to know — the good journalism part. Our fabulous editors managed to juggle schedules so that we rotated on “bulk” while keeping some of us on dedicated projects that were so important for our community. Oh and of course we had our own definition of “bulk” as well. After all, a 50-inch story feels pretty bulky, doesn’t it? Plus 200 words advancing an important public hearing can be just as democratically important as a brief about some new product.
Capitalism does not necessitate poor quality in the pursuit of product quantity. The notion significantly underestimates people’s (consumers’?) ability to appreciate important news (product?). Even those briefs have to be something the “market” (society!) needs and wants — well written, informative, interesting. My audience research suggests the problem with the commercial press right now is not the capitalistic structure, but rather the production quality. People are demanding new kinds of content that allow them to connect (with powerful sources, with each other, with issues) and inform themselves on their terms. People recognize that “bulk” does not equate to good journalism (or a good product, if we want to stick with capitalism-speak).
As I tell my students now, the key to being a good journalist working at a for-profit company is time management, creative interpretations of corporate mandates such as “bulk! bulk! bulk!,” alternative kinds of story formats, agnostic understandings of platform, disciplined efforts around storytelling, and finally, laser focus on the end goal of significant and important democracy-improving work in one’s day-to-day labor.
Alternative Models Needed, Though!
Yet the environment of the professional journalist today is certainly challenging. We need to discover other models for doing good information work that complement the industry but do not rely on profits.
I am in the middle of creating a new syllabus for a press-theory seminar I will be teaching this spring, and one of my segments is on new news business models. In doing some research for it, I’m struck by how much innovation is out there compared to 2006 when I and most of my journalist friends either fled the industry or were laid off because of a decidedly failing business model.
I found real suggestions touching on:
- Government/Taxpayer subsidies
- Community as the new biz model
- Nonprofit investigative centers(with all kinds of funding structures, from foundational support to new revenues streams)
And this is just to name a few. This Mediashift blog post from 2008 is a bit dated right now, but the ideas are still very relevant and possible. In looking at all of this in aggregate at this moment, I find myself feeling a sense of optimism about the future of this profession, capitalists and all.