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April 18 2012

14:03

Coloring books and puppets: California Watch unveils a new section just for kids

It’s often said that kids today aren’t interested in the news. Could it be because traditional newsrooms aren’t reporting stories with them in mind?

Most third-graders may not need or want comprehensive coverage of, say, tax reform. But there’s a case to be made for tailoring some important news to a pint-sized audience. That was nonprofit California Watch’s attitude when it included a coloring book in its 2011 series on seismic safety.

Now, California Watch has a whole news section just for children. It’s a place where “you can color, watch videos and learn about issues our reporters cover.” It’s also the latest move in the nonprofit’s longstanding effort to distribute their work through nontraditional channels as a way to reach people who need the information they’re reporting. To meet that goal, California Watch’s strategy incorporates multiple platforms, translating work into different languages, and collaborations with media and community partners to get the word out.

“One of the things that I love about California Watch is we’re focused on actual communities because we have a solution-oriented focus,” the site’s public engagement manager, Ashley Alvarado, told me.

So the California Watch reporting strategy isn’t just about putting the information out there — it’s also about empowering people, grown-ups and kids, to do something about what they’ve learned. The star of the “Ready to Rumble” coloring book, Sunny the dog, makes a return for the Junior Watchdogs section, which features an online version of the original coloring book that kids (or, ahem, Nieman Lab reporters) can color using a digital palette.

There’s also a video puppet show — complete with felt props, knitted finger puppets, music and voiceovers — about clean water issues. The three-minute film explores pollution, and how people affect water quality. (This is truly a team effort: Listen for reporter Lance Williams as the voice of the owl scientist.) Next week, California Watch is debuting the Spanish-language version of the video.

The Junior Watchdogs site features a map called “Where’s Sunny?” that shows all of the places where California Watch has shipped its “Ready to Rumble” coloring book. Most of them went to coastal cities in the United States but at least one batch got as far as New Zealand. Another story in the works for the junior audience is based on a 2010 series about unsafe levels of lead in toys, jewelry, and back-to-school products.

The unusual storytelling approach is only one component. California Watch also has to make sure that people know about its work, and that’s Alvarado’s job. There may be an opportunity to tap into a network of schools at some point, but first she’s going to hit the streets. Alvarado has been putting together community toolkits, which she’ll “hand deliver, person by person” to various areas. Each toolkit will contain:

• A DVD featuring the puppet show and a slideshow (an alternative format for those without Internet access)

• Printed versions of an article or articles applicable to the community

• Worksheets to help answer questions that community members might have about the issue that California Watch reported about in their area, including contact numbers for government agencies

• A primer on working with the media

• A one-page information sheet about California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting

In much the same way that government agencies and other institutions provide reporters with press kits to help them understand the issues they have to write about, California Watch is giving informational kits to the community based on what it has reported.

Alvarado will start with 100 kits for her trip to two mobile home parks in Coachella, and will distribute kits that include an article about grim living conditions there. There is also a toolkit built designed to serve the Maywood community based on coverage of water quality, and a toolkit for unincorporated communities across the state.

“We’re not just writing about a community for another community,” Alvarado says. “That means nontraditional distribution. That means whether we’re putting a story on a postcard, putting a story in a coloring book, attending community meetings, whatever we have to do to become their own advocate.”

A contrasting example she gives: The New York Times might produce a brilliantly reported piece of journalism. But what if it’s about people who don’t read the Times? Which news organizations are looking out for their interests?

“I always joke and say we’re so old school we’re new school,” Alvarado says. “We are putting an emphasis on actual human-to-human interaction, which is — for whatever reason — becoming endangered.”

April 12 2012

22:24

TechRaking unites journalists, technologists

TechRaking 2012, a summit hosted by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google, brought together an invite-only group at the search giant's headquarters to examine the future of investigative journalism. Read More »

March 28 2012

15:37

Daily Must Reads, March 28, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Lily Leung.

1. Bay Citizen and CIR officially merge (JimRomenesko.com)



2. Amazon's Kindle store hits a wall during Harry Potter e-book sale (PaidContent)



3. iPad Newsstand moves $70,000 in sales every day (MinOnline)



4. Journalists: Ban on devices in U.S. Supreme Courtroom is outdated (Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas)



5. Twitter confirms an "unfollow" bug in system is affecting users (The Telegraph)



6. Layoffs hit financial website TheStreet.com (Business Insider
)



Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



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February 10 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Facebook’s future and the open web, and finding balance on breaking news

Is Facebook a threat to the open web?: There was still a lot of smart commentary on Facebook’s filing for a public stock offering rolling in last late week, so I’ll start with a couple pieces I missed in last week’s review: Both The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo were skeptical of Facebook’s ability to stay so financially successful. Madrigal said it’s going to have to get a lot more than the $4.39 in revenue per user it’s currently getting, and Manjoo wondered about what happens after the social gaming craze that’s been providing so much of Facebook’s revenue passes.

How to supplement those revenue streams? A lot of the answer’s going to come from personal data aggregation, and law professor Lori Andrews wrote in The New York Times about some of the dark sides of that practice, including stereotyping and discrimination. Facebook also needs to move more deeply into mobile, and Wired’s Tim Carmody documented its struggles in that area. On the bright side, Wired’s Steven Levy approved of Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders and his articulation of The Hacker Way.

Facebook’s filing also spurred an intriguing discussion of the relationship between it, Google, and the open web. As web pioneer John Battelle said best and The Atlantic’s James Fallows summarized aptly, several observers were concerned that Facebook’s rise and Google’s potential decline is a loss for the open web, because Google built its financial success on the success of the open web while Facebook’s success depends on increased sharing inside its own private channels. As Battelle argued, this private orientation threatens the core values that should drive the Internet: decentralization, a commons-based ethos, neutrality, interoperability, and data openness. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM countered that users don’t care so much about openness as usefulness, and that’s what could eventually do Facebook in.

Another Facebook-related discussion sprung up around Evgeny Morozov’s piece for The New York Times lamenting the death of cyberflânerie — the practice of strolling through the streets of the web alone, taking in and reflecting on its sights and sounds. Among other factors, he pinpointed Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” as the culprit, by mandating that all experiences be shared and tailored to our narrow interests. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pushed back against Morozov’s argument, countering that there’s still plenty of room for sharing-based serendipity because our friends’ interests don’t exactly line up with our own. And journalist Dana Goldstein argued that a lot of what yesterday’s flâneurs did is still echoed in the web today, for better or worse — cyberstalking, trying out new identities, and presenting our ideal selves to the public.

The clampdown on breaking news via Twitter: One of international journalism’s leaders in social media innovation, News Corp.’s Sky News, issued a surprisingly stern crackdown on its journalists’ Twitter practices, banning them from retweeting information from any other journalists without clearing it past the news desk and from tweeting about anything outside their beats.

There were a few people in favor of the new policy — Forbes’ Ewan Spence applauded the ‘better right than first’ approach, and Fleet Street Blues rather headscratchingly asserted that “it makes no sense for them to pay journalists to report through a medium outside its own editorial controls.” But far more people were crying out in opposition.

Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa reiterated that argument that a retweet is simply a quote, rather than an endorsement, and Breaking News’ Cory Bergman said not all the broadcast rules apply to Twitter — it’s okay to be human there. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and POLIS’ Charlie Beckett made the point that Sky should want its reporters to be seen as go-to information sources, period — no matter where the information comes from. As Beckett put it: “We the audience now privilege interactivity and added value over conformity. We trust you because you share, not because you have hierarchical structures.”

The BBC also updated its social media guidelines to urge reporters not to break news on Twitter before they file it to the BBC’s internal systems. BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton quickly clarified that the policy wasn’t as restrictive as it sounded: The BBC’s tech allows its journalists to file simultaneously to Twitter and to its newsroom CMS (an impressive feat in itself), and when that tech isn’t available, they want their journalists to file to the newsroom first — “a difference of a few seconds.”

J-prof Alfred Hermida said the idea that journalists shouldn’t break news on Twitter rests on the flawed assumption that journalists have a monopoly on breaking the news. And on Twitter, fellow media prof C.W. Anderson asserted that the chief problem lies in the idea that breaking news adds significant value to a story. “The debate over “breaking news on Twitter” is a perfect example of mistaking professional values for public / financial / ‘rational’ ones,” he wrote. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, meanwhile, praised the BBC for putting some real thought into how to fit Twitter into the breaking news workflow.

An unclear picture of the Times’ paywall: The New York Times released its fourth-quarter results late last week, and, as usual with their recent announcements, it proved something of a media business Rorschach test. The company reported a loss of $39.7 million for the year, thanks in large part to declines in advertising revenue — though most of that was due to About.com, as revenue in its news division was slightly up for the quarter.

As for the paywall, media analyst Ken Doctor reported 390,000 digital subscribers and estimated the Times’ paywall revenue at $86 million and said the paper has climbed a big mountain in getting more than 70 percent of its print subscribers to sign up for online access. Reuters’ Felix Salmon saw the paywall numbers as “unamiguously good news” and said it shows the paywall hasn’t eaten into ad revenues as much as it was expected to.

Others were a bit less optimistic. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the Times’ new paywall revenue still isn’t enough to make up for its ad revenue declines, and urged the times to go beyond the paywall in hunting for digital revenue. Media analyst Greg Satell made a similar point, arguing that the paywall is a false hope and calling for the Times build up more “satellite” brands online, like the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital. Henry Blodget of Business Insider had a different solution: Keep cutting costs until the newsroom is down to a size that can be supported by a digital operation.

A nonprofit journalism merger: After a few weeks of speculation, two of the U.S.’ more prominent nonprofit news operations, the Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have announced their intent to merge. Both groups are based in California’s Bay Area, and the CIR runs the statewide news org California Watch. The executive director of the new organization would be Phil Bronstein, the CIR board chairman and former San Francisco Chronicle editor.

Opinions on the move were mixed: Oakland Local founder (and former California Watch consultant) Susan Mernit thought it would make a lot of sense, combining the Bay Citizen’s strengths in funding and distribution with California Watch’s strengths in editorial content. Likewise, the Lab’s Ken Doctor saw it as an opportunity to make local nonprofit journalism work at an unprecedented scale.

There are reasons for caution, though. As Jim Romenesko noted, the Bay Citizen has recently gone through several key departures and the unexpected death of its co-founder and main benefactor, Warren Hellman (and even forgot to renew its web domain for a bit). And California Watch pointed out some of the potential conflicts between the two newsrooms — California Watch has a partnership with the Chronicle, whom the Bay Citizen considers a competitor. And the Bay Citizen has its own partnership with The New York Times for its regional edition, something PBS MediaShift’s Ashwin Seshagiri said could now prove as much a hindrance as an advantage.

J-prof Jay Rosen said the two orgs aren’t a good fit because of their differing institutional bases — the CIR is more established and has been on a steady build, while the Bay Citizen’s short history is full of turmoil. And the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Steven Jones argued that Bronstein’s rationale for the merger is misrepresenting Hellman’s wishes.

Reading roundup: Lots of other stuff going on this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Another week, another few new angles to the already enormous News Corp. phone hacking scandal: The FBI is investigating the company for illegal payments of as much £100,000 to foreign officials such as police officers, a political blogger told British officials that the Sunday Mirror’s top editor personally authorized hacking, and The Times of London admitted it hacked into a police officer’s email to out him as the author of an anonymous blog. How much is this whole mess costing News Corp.? $87 million for the investigation alone last quarter.

— News Corp.’s tablet news publication The Daily got the one-year treatment with an update on its so-so progress in The New York Times. News business analyst Alan Mutter also gave a pretty rough review of the status of tablet news apps as a whole.

— A couple of other news developments of interest to folks in our little niche: The tech news site GigaOM announced it was buying paidContent from the Guardian (PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil loved the move, and the Knight Foundation announced the first of its new News Challenge competitions, this one oriented around networks.

— A couple of cool studies released this week: One from HP Labs on predicting the spread of news on Twitter, and another from USC on ways in which the Internet is changing us.

— Finally, for those of us among the digitally hyper-connected, The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a poignant piece on the enduring value of in-person connections, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci offered a thoughtful response.

Original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

14:00

Mediatwits #37: Merger Mania: CIR-Bay Citizen; GigaOM-PaidContent; Twitter Censorship

robert rosenthal headshot.JPG

Welcome to the 37th episode of "The Mediatwits," the weekly audio podcast from MediaShift. The co-hosts are MediaShift's Mark Glaser and Jillian York, who is filling in for Rafat Ali. It's been a crazy week in media + tech, with important mergers abounding! First up is the Center for Investigative Reporting announcing that it will try to merge with another non-profit, the Bay Citizen, making a powerhouse investigative team to cover local, state and national issues. We get all the key players in that deal as guests on the show: CIR chairman Phil Bronstein, CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal and Bay Citizen interim CEO Brian Kelley.

Next up, there's a merger of key tech sites, both started by Indian-born bloggers who turned them into startup businesses. GigaOM announced it was buying PaidContent from the Guardian for an undisclosed sum. The Guardian will get stock in GigaOM's parent company and get a seat on the board. Special guests OM Malik, founder of GigaOM and Staci Kramer, SVP at ContentNext (and sometimes co-host of Mediatwits), talked about the deal and how the "synergy" in this case didn't mean layoffs. And finally, we discussed the recent move by Twitter to censor some tweets in countries that had more stringent free speech controls. Was Twitter right to implement these rules?

Check it out!

mediatwits37.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast here

Subscribe to Mediatwits via iTunes

Follow @TheMediatwits on Twitter here

Intro and outro music by 3 Feet Up; mid-podcast music by Autumn Eyes via Mevio's Music Alley.

Here are some highlighted topics from the show:

PhilBronstein.jpg

Intro

1:00: Jillian York explains her work at the EFF

2:20: Blogs, online forums, social media only places for free expression in many countries

3:35: Rundown of topics for the podcast

CIR and Bay Citizen

4:30: Special guests Phil Bronstein, Robert Rosenthal, Brian Kelley

8:00: Rosenthal: Want to create engaged audience in Bay Area and globally

11:10: Kelley: Should be excellent synergy between organizations

12:45: Kelley: Striking about timing of executive departures, but not connected

17:20: Bronstein: Sustainability is something we talk about every day

GigaOM buys PaidContent

20:00: Special guests Om Malik and Staci Kramer

22:30: Malik: We can now cover a broader spectrum of topics

22:40: Kramer: In this case, synergy won't mean layoffs, cost-cutting

26:30: Kramer: We're not new media, we're media

28:50: How is Om any different than Michael Arrington as VC?

Twitter censoring tweets

32:30: Micro-blog service will comply with rules in other countries

33:45: Is the #TwitterBlackout a good idea?

35:50: York: The laws in the countries are the problem, not the companies' policies

38:10: York: I don't think these companies should be in China

More Reading

Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Plan to Merge. Now What? at MediaShift

Bay Citizen in Merger Talks With Another Nonprofit at Wall Street Journal

The Bay Citizen's short, strange saga in nonprofit news could be coming to an end at SF Business Times

Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Announce Intent to Merge at Bay Citizen

GigaOM + PaidContent = Perfect Sense at MediaShift

Is GigaOM Buying paidContent? at AllThingsD

Why We Are Buying PaidContent at GigaOM

GigaOM And paidContent Join Forces at PaidContent

Twitter Censorship Move Sparks Backlash: Is It Justified? at Wired

Twitter's censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter at Reuters

Twitter Censorship: Outkast's Big Boi Involved In Beyonce Tweet Takedown at Huffington Post

South Korean Indicted Over Twitter Posts From North at NY Times

Weekly Poll

Don't forget to vote in our weekly poll, this time about Twitter censoring tweets:


What do you think about Twitter censoring tweets?

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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October 07 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: Remembering Steve Jobs, and a new-old media partnership

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

A man who thought different: The tech, media, and business worlds lost one of their brightest minds this week: Steve Jobs, the visionary who co-founded Apple and helped transform virtually every industry this site touches on, died Wednesday at age 56. Thousands of people have been pouring out their thanks and remembrances online over the past couple of days; I’ll try to highlight some of the most insightful reflections here.

First, the obituaries: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal memorialized Jobs in their formal, definitive style, while Wired’s Steven Levy took a more interpretive angle on Jobs’ life and work. The Times offered a fantastic interactive guide to Jobs’ 317 patents, and All Things Digital remembered Jobs with a collection of his own words. One of his most well-known public statements is a 2005 commencement speech that included some profound thoughts about death, including the statement, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

The New York Times and the Lab’s Megan Garber have good summaries of the ways people remembered and honored Jobs on Wednesday. Several pieces on Jobs’ legacy, by the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, and Reuters’ Kevin Kelleher, centered on a similar point: Jobs’ expertise wasn’t in technical advancements so much as it was in his uncanny ability to recognize what made technologies frustrating for people to use and then to develop brilliant solution after brilliant solution. As the AP’s Ted Anthony put it, “He realized what we wanted before we understood it ourselves.”

Others remembered Jobs for what tech blogger Dave Winer called “the integrity of his vision.” For the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, that vision meant a distinctive devotion to work for pure self-fulfillment, and that devotion led to, as Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb pointed out, a corporate culture uniquely predicated on accountability and direct responsibility. Berkman Center fellow Doc Searls brought up some old insights about Jobs’ dedication to innovation, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor wrote on the juxtaposition between his awe of Jobs’ genius and his concern about Apple’s growing control. Horace Dediu gave the contrarian’s remembrance, challenging the idea of Jobs as an otherworldly visionary and coming up with some poetic insight in the process.

A few people looked specifically at Steve Jobs’ impact on the media industry — GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at the ways Apple has continued to disrupt media, especially with the iPhone, which definitively turned the phone into a media consumption device. Jeff Sonderman of Poynter republished a piece on Jobs’ relationship with the news industry, and the New York Times’ David Carr said Jobs made business journalism cool for the first time.

Then there were the personal stories: Fast Company collected bunches of accounts of tech execs, writers, and students’ first meetings with Jobs, and the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg shared several Jobs stories of his own. Tech blogger John Gruber wrote on the grass-stained sneakers Jobs wore to his keynote address at a conference in June — “the product of limited time, well spent.” And former Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, who had a notorious run-in with Apple last year over a lost iPhone prototype, reflected on Jobs’ kindness and forgiveness amid that incident.

My favorite takeaway came from journalism professor Jeremy Littau’s summary of his lecture on Jobs to his students: “Go create stuff. Lots of stuff. Don’t wait for me to tell you to do it and —  for the love of God — don’t wait for it to be assigned in a class or be for credit on the student newspaper. The great ones are never off the clock. They create stuff because it matters, not because they’re told to.”

Two media giants jump in together: ABC News and Yahoo announced a major partnership for online news, agreeing to share web content, count traffic together, and produce web video series. It’s not a full-fledged merger: The two organizations will remain independent, but they’ll share news bureaus and sell ads together as ABC produces web series for Yahoo and Yahoo maintains the web operations of shows like Good Morning America.

These two companies have done something like this before — as Poynter noted, their announcement this week was strikingly similar to an announcement between the two orgs back in 2000. Still, The New York Times said it’s the deepest partnership of its kind since NBC and Microsoft in the mid-’90s. The basic reasons for the move seem to make sense: As the Times and TV Newser pointed out, ABC News has plenty of corporate muscle behind it via Disney, but has lagged behind its competitors in web traffic. Yahoo, on the other hand, is swimming in traffic but has had some serious difficulty figuring where to go from there.

Still, the deal got a lukewarm reception from many online media analysts. One of them told Ad Age that for ABC News, Yahoo was “the last life vest on the Titanic.” Wired’s Tim Carmody said ABC and Yahoo could have some quite interesting opportunities for cooperation, but instead, they’re “both left chasing The Huffington Post — a fast-growing, web-native and increasingly multimedia-savvy and professional-journalism-driven site.” Mathew Ingram of GigaOM described the move as a doomed, retrograde portal strategy: What these organizations need, he said, is not more eyeballs, but more targeted audiences and well-produced niche content.

But here at the Lab, media professor Josh Braun said that while the partnership is far from a slam dunk, it’s still an ambitious move with the potential to give ABC News a foothold into round-the-clock content and some demographic niches highly coveted by advertisers. On Yahoo’s side, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici wondered whether they’re moving away from producing original content.

Apple drops the next iPhone: The news of Steve Jobs’ death dwarfed what had been a significant development for Apple-philes: the unveiling, earlier this week, of the next iteration of the iPhone, the iPhone 4S. As the New York Times explained, the new iPhone doesn’t look much different from the current one, but most of its improvements are below the surface, most notably the addition of a voice-activated personal assistant named Siri.

This was not what everyone was expecting; for weeks, the tech press had wrongly predicted an iPhone 5, only to see upgrades that were smaller and more incremental than they expected. The result was disappointment for many, summed up well by Henry Blodget of Business Insider and Farhad Manjoo of Slate. Others, like tech writer Dan Frommer and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, said there was plenty to like about the iPhone 4S, including faster download speeds and a more powerful camera.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman looked at several aspects of the new iPhone of interest to journalists, focusing specifically on Apple’s new Newsstand section for newspaper and magazine apps. He expressed some concern that the Newsstand locks publishers into Apple’s 30-percent-cut pay system while duplicating the old print news-buying experience, rather than creating something new.

Reading roundup: This week was a busy one outside of the big stories, too. Here’s what else people were talking about:

— Some conversation that continues to trickle out about Facebook’s overhaul: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” is where the web is headed next, the Lab’s Ken Doctor and Gina Chen looked at what’s in this for news orgs, and at The Atlantic, Ben Zimmer looked at what Facebook has done to the way we use language.

— Commentary about last week’s Kindle announcement also continued this week, with Frederic Filloux explaining why he’s excited about the Kindle Fire’s potential for news media and magazine publishers, saying the Fire could help spark some big revenue in tablets. Meanwhile, Nate Hoffelder noted that there’s a lot that you can’t do with the Kindle and its apps, and Mathew Ingram wondered what will happen to the book industry when Kindle prices drop to zero.

— Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post a couple of weeks ago about journalism for makers has led to a slow-burning discussion: Grad student Blair Hickman proposed a model for solution-based journalism, while journalism professor C.W. Anderson questioned whether journalists have the authority for such an approach. Meanwhile, Josh Stearns of Free Press mused on applying “systems thinking” to journalism.

— This month’s Carnival of Journalism produced a solid set of posts that examined a variety of aspects of online video, from technique to philosophy to business. Here’s the roundup.

— Two useful pieces of advice from Poynter: a guide for news sites to partnering with local blogs, and for journalists to get started with data journalism.

— Former New York Times editor Bill Keller offered a (surprisingly) bullish take on the potential for a sustainable business model in online news, and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal gave a thorough, up-close look at what that means for a single news org in his four-part report on making CIR and California Watch sustainable. Here’s part one and the bullet-point version.

September 15 2011

14:00

From Nieman Reports: How the Center for Investigative Reporting and partners birthed the Civil Rights Cold Case Project

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their Fall 2011 issue, “Cold Case Reporting,” which focuses on process of revisiting old investigations to tell new stories. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight a few stories from the issue — but go read the whole thing. In this piece, Robert J. Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting writes about the origins of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project.

Soon after I arrived at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in January 2008, I spoke with reporter John Fleming of The Anniston (Ala.) Star. He was looking for help investigating a cold murder case from the civil rights era. Within weeks I learned of other journalists in the South and elsewhere who were working on similar cases. Two of them, Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi and Canadian documentary filmmaker David Ridgen, had done acclaimed work that helped bring killers to justice and some small measure of peace to the families of the victims.

In the early spring of 2008 I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to talk about collaboration and the funding of cold case reporting with Mitchell; Ridgen; Fleming; Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel, a weekly paper in Ferriday, Louisiana; and Aynsley Vogel of the Vancouver-based Paperny Films. Our unifying motivation was storytelling, justice and even reconciliation. I wanted to create a project of an ambitious sweep that would tell the untold stories of killers, victims and their families in ways that would tie together a shameful chapter in American history and link it in powerful arcs to today. What I didn’t know going in was how inspired I’d feel by hearing these journalists share fragments from their work that spoke to why telling these stories mattered to them — and should matter to all of us.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

April 21 2011

21:00

AP expands its content-distribution experiment with nonprofit news

Earlier today, the Associated Press announced that it will be expanding its project to distribute content from nonprofit news outfits to newspapers. The expansion builds on the partnerships the cooperative — itself a nonprofit — had developed with the public-interest news providers ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity,the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. The partnerships were built in hopes of a win-win scenario: wider content distribution for the nonprofits, and more high-quality content for papers. Today’s announcement doubles down on the project’s implied institutionalization of an ecosystem that promotes collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit news sources. (With it, the AP is also announcing a fifth partner: the Maynard Institute.)

Expansion-of-an-existing-project isn’t always big news, of course, but it’s worth noting in this case because the AP’s nonprofit-distribution effort has been an undertaking that, as our Laura McGann noted in February, was less pathbreaking than participants had hoped it would be when it was first announced — largely because the nonprofits’ content (most of it, anyway) simply wasn’t picked up by newspapers.

“We wish it had gone better,” Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, told the Lab after the project’s six-month beta period. John Raess, AP’s San Francisco bureau chief (and one of the project’s leads), acknowledged the same thing his partners did: that the project had been, at that point, “not as hugely successful as we’d like.” And Sue Cross, the AP’s senior vice president for global new media and US media markets (and the executive who launched the project), noted that there’d been no talk of expanding it.

So today’s announcement of an expansion is not just news, but also, potentially, good news — both for nonprofit outlets and the consumers who stand to benefit from the public-interest reporting they do.

“It’s been very low-key because we’ve been taking it slowly,” says Kate Butler, the AP’s vice president for U.S. newspaper markets — a rollout that’s been both experimental and intentional. “We wanted to start small, see what the issues were — and see what worked,” she told me. And a big part of that came down to solving — or, at least, improving — a logistical problem Laura noted in February: the delivery platform AP uses to share the stories themselves. The AP has been engaged in an org-wide effort to transition its members from its satellite wire to its web-based AP Exchange — a process that, save for a few stragglers, was pretty much completed as of this March, John Raess told me.

During the project’s beta, Butler notes, the AP had been using AP Exchange as its web portal. To find content — including the content from nonprofits — editors would log into the Exchange system and actively search for stories. But the expanded partnership with nonprofits will make use of the AP WebFeeds technology, which includes metadata for stories and allows for easier searching and sorting of those stories — and, crucially, allows content to flow directly into papers’ content management systems.

Essentially, the cooperative has traded push notifications for pull in distributing nonprofit-produced news content to papers. The new system, Butler says, “removes a step and makes it easier for the content to be seen.”

The nonprofit stories are opt-in for news publishers — sent to your CMS only if you want them to be — but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a paper would turn down exposure to stories that are, ostensibly, both in the public interest and, you know, good. (No money changes hands in the exchange.) Though he declines to specify the particular outfits at this point, Raess has so far talked to around 15 publications, he told me — and “every editor I’ve talked to has said yes.”

November 11 2010

16:00

The Newsonomics of journalist headcounts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

We try to make sense of how much we’ve lost and how much we’ve gained through journalism’s massive upheaval. It’s a dizzying picture; our almost universal access to news and the ability of any writer to be her own publisher gives the appearance of lots more journalism being available. Simultaneously, the numbers of paid professional people practicing the craft has certainly lowered the output through traditional media.

It’s a paradox that we’re in the midst of wrestling with. We’re in the experimental phase of figuring out how much journalists, inside and out of branded media, are producing — and where the biggest gaps are. We know that numbers matter, but we don’t yet know how they play with that odd measure that no metrics can yet definitively tell us: quality.

I’ve used the number of 1,000,000 as a rough approximation of how many newspaper stories would go unwritten in 2010, as compared to 2005, based on staffing reduction. When I brought that up on panel in New York City in January, fellow panelist Jeff Jarvis asked: “But how many of those million stories do we need? How many are duplicated?” Good questions, and ones that of course there are no definitive answers for. We know that local communities are getting less branded news; unevenly, more blog-based news; and much more commentary, some of it produced by experienced journalists. There’s no equivalency between old and new, but we can get some comparative numbers to give us some guidelines.

For now, let’s look mainly at text-based media, though we’ll include public radio here, as it makes profound moves to digital-first and text. (Broadcast and cable news, of course, are a significant part of the news diet. U.S. Labor Department numbers show more than 30,000 people employed in the production of broadcast news, but it’s tough to divine how much of that effort so far has had an impact on text-based news. National broadcast numbers aren’t easily found, though we know there are more than 3,500 people (only a percentage of them in editorial) working in news divisions of the Big Four, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS — a total that’s dropped more than 25 percent in recent years.)

Let’s start our look at text-based media with the big dog: daily newspapers. ASNE’s annual count put the national daily newsroom number at 41,500 in 2010, down from 56,400 in 2001 (and 56,900 in 1990). Those numbers are approximations, bases on partial survey, and they are the best we have for the daily industry. So, let’s use 14,000 as the number of daily newsroom jobs gone in a decade. We don’t have numbers for community weekly newspapers, with no census done by either the National Newspaper Association or most state press associations. A good estimate looks to be in the 8,000-10,000 range for the 2,000 or so weeklies in the NNA membership, plus lots of stringers.

Importantly, wire services aren’t included in the ASNE numbers. Put together the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg (though some of those workforces are worldwide, not U.S.-based) and you’ve got about 7,500 editorial staffers.

Let’s look at some areas that are growing, starting with public radio. Public radio, on the road to becoming public media, has produced a steady drumbeat of news about its expansion lately (“The Newsonomics of public radio argonauts,” “Public Radio $100 Million Plan: 100 Journalist Per City,”), as Impact of Government, Project Argo, Local Journalism Centers add more several hundred journalists across the country. But how many journalists work in public broadcasting? Try 3,224, a number recently counted in a census conducted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That’s “professional journalists”, about 80% of them full-time. About 2,500 of them are in public radio, the rest in public TV. Should all the announced funding programs come to fruition, the number could rise to more than 4,000 by the end of 2011.

Let’s look at another kind of emerging, non-profit-based journalism numbers, categorized as the most interesting and credible nonprofit online publishers by Investigative Reporting Workshop’s iLab site. That recent census includes 60 sites, with the largest including Mother Jones magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and and the Center for Public Integrity. Also included are such newsworthy sites as Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, Voice of San Diego, the New Haven Independent and the St. Louis Beacon. Their total full-time employment: 658. Additionally, there are high dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists operating their own hyperlocal blog sites around the country. Add in other for-profit start-ups, from Politico to Huffington Post to GlobalPost to TBD to Patch to a revived National Journal, and the journalists hired by Yahoo, MSN and AOL (beyond Patch), and you’ve got a number around another thousand.

How about the alternative press — though not often cited in online news, they’re improving their digital game, though unevenly. Though AAN — the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies — hasn’t done a formal census, we can get an educated guess from Mark Zusman, former president of AAN and long-time editor of Portland’s Willamette Week, winner of 2005 Pulitzer for investigative reporting. “The 132 papers together employ something in the range of 800 edit employees, and that’s probably down 20 or 25 percent from five years ago”.

Add in the business press, outside of daily newspapers. American City Business Journals itself employs about 600 journalists, spread over the USA. Figure that from the now-veteran Marketwatch to the upstart Business Insider and numerous other business news websites, we again approach 1,000 journalists here.

What about sports journalists working outside of dailies? ESPN alone probably can count somewhere between 500 and 1000, of its total 5,000-plus workforce. Comcast is hiring by the dozens and publications like Sporting News are ramping up as well (“The Newsonomics of sports avidity“). So, we’re on the way to a thousand.

How about newsmagazine journalists? Figure about 500, though that number seems to slip by the day, as U.S. News finally puts its print to bed.

So let’s look broadly at those numbers. Count them all up — and undoubtedly, numerous ones are missing — and you’ve got something more than 65,000 journalists, working for brands of one kind or another. What interim conclusions can we draw?

  • Daily newspaper employment is still the big dog, responsible for a little less than two-thirds of the journalistic output, though down from levels of 80 percent or more. When someone tells you that the loss of newspaper reporting isn’t a big deal, don’t believe it. While lots of new jobs are being created — that 14,000 loss in a decade is still a big number. We’re still not close to replacing that number of jobs, even if some of the journalism being created outside of dailies is better than what some of what used to be created within them.
  • If we look at areas growing fastest (public radio’s push, online-only growth, niche growth in business and sports), we see a number approaching 7,500. That’s a little less than 20 percent of daily newspaper totals, but a number far higher than most people would believe.
  • When we define journalism, we have to define it — and count it — far more widely than we have. The ASNE number has long been the annual, depressing marker of what’s lost — a necrology for the business as we knew it — not suggesting what’s being gained. An index of journalism employment overall gives us a truer and more nuanced picture.
  • Full-time equivalent counts only go so far in a pro-am world, where the machines of Demand, Seed, Associated Content, Helium and the like harness all kinds of content, some of it from well-pedigreed reporters. While all these operations raise lots of questions on pay, value and quality, they are part of the mix going forward.

In a sense, technologies and growing audiences have built out a huge capacity for news, and that new capacity is only now being filled in. It’s a Sim City of journalism, with population trends in upheaval and the urban map sure to look much different by 2015.

Photo by Steve Crane used under a Creative Commons license.

November 04 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

October 20 2010

13:00

Meet “The Hub,” a virtual clubhouse for community nonprofit news sites

At the Block by Block community news conference last month, an irony emerged: Local site publishers, who spend their days cultivating community, hadn’t enjoyed much community amongst themselves. Again and again during the event — a convergence that co-host Jay Rosen aptly described as “entrepreneur atomization overcome” — participants expressed their desire for a centralized spot for conversation, information…and commiseration. As one publisher put it during the conference’s introduction session: “I just don’t want to feel like I’m alone in this.”

Enter The Hub, a new site that wants to be just what its name suggests: a centralized space — in this case, one for community news nonprofits. The site wants to be a go-to spot — the go-to spot, actually — for the people involved in nonprofit news, from journalists to publishers, from academics to funders. Click over to the site now, and you’ll find, among other things: a Getting Started section with legal and tax primers, editorial guidelines, and samples of marketing collateral; a Beyond the Basics section with info on business modeling and engagement strategies; an Academics and Research section with reports and teaching tips; a searchable database of participating news sites; a collection of contextual materials, like Q&As with, and videos of, nonprofit experts; and — maybe the most valuable resource for a nonprofit startup — a list of organizations that fund nonprofit journalism.

The Hub is overseen by Voice of San Diego, which has emerged of late as a kind of mega-org, leading collaboration efforts with fellow nonprofits. The idea for the site, says Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO, came in part from the many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own nonprofit news sites. (Little surprise: The logistics to be worked out when it comes to news startup-ing — editorial, legal, and, of course, financial — are dizzying.) “We were getting so many people asking so many questions and wanting so many documents,” Lewis told me, “that we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s put it up. Let’s put it all up.’”

Though the idea was conceived by journalists, the site was funded by a foundation — the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation — and built by academics: San Diego State University assistant professor Amy Schmitz Weiss, with the help of grad students Jessica Plautz and Yueh-hui Chiang. They designed the site (work began in May) and then, over a busy summer, seeded it with relevant data. The hope, though, is that news organizations will supplement the existing infrastructure with their own contributions: information about their operating models, resources they’ve found helpful in building out those models, etc. Ultimately, Lewis says, he’d love to see each outlet with its own profile page on the network. (“Like a Facebook for nonprofit news sites,” he says.) From there, The Hub could also function as means of connecting community sites, both fledgling and already existing, not only to each other, Block by Block-style…but also to the organizations that might want to fund them. Voila!

The Hub doesn’t want to be simply a repository of documents, though, or even a connector of institutions; it also wants to be a centralized space for conversations. This past spring, the Knight Foundation convened a group of nonprofit journalism practitioners in Austin to share best practices, consider opportunities for collaboration, and generally discuss strategies for sustaining themselves into the future. (Check out videos of that meeting here and here and here and here.) Many new insights sprang from that meeting, Lewis notes — one of them being the meta-insight that was the need for a spot to incubate those insights in the first place. “We needed a natural place to put ideas once they come out,” he puts it — and “a natural place to promote them and make sure they spread.”

Lewis recently wrote a much-circulated blog post on the benefits of revenue promiscuity in the nonprofit world; it’s now hosted on The Hub. Ideally, he says, other people will contribute their own posts — original topics, or riffs on writings from other contributors — that will live on the site and fashion it into a kind of virtual brain trust. (Think Snarkmarket, the excellent group blog run by Twitter’s Robin Sloan, NPR’s Matt Thompson, and Wired’s Tim Carmody.) If the current state of the site is any indication, though, Voice of San Diego will continue to play a leadership role in cultivating the conversation, with the outfit’s models and strategies continuing to be a guiding resource for emerging startups. It’s a one-for-all approach that serves an all-for-one goal in nonprofit journalism. “If we and everyone else are seen as a viable solution that the community can turn to,” Lewis says, “then that helps us all.”

October 14 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of replacement journalism

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Finally, we’re seeing light on the horizon. Journalism hiring is picking up.

The second half of the year has so far produced TBD’s hiring of 50 in Washington, Patch’s push to pick up 500 journalists across the country, and the new alliance for public media plan to hire more than 300 journalists in four major cities, if funding can be found in 2011. In addition, the brand-name journalist market has suddenly flowered, as everyone from National Journal to the Daily Beast to Bloomberg to AOL to the Huffington Post to Yahoo compete for talent. These are bigger numbers — and more activity — than we’ve previously seen, though they build on earlier hirings from ProPublica to California Watch to Bay Citizen to Texas Tribune to MinnPost and well beyond.

It’s a dizzying quilt of hiring, in some ways hard to make sense of, as business models (how exactly is Patch’s business model going to succeed? what happens when the foundation money dries up?) remain in deep flux. Yet, amid the hope, now comes this question: Are we beginning to see “replacement journalism” arriving?

Replacement journalism, by its nature, is a hazy notion. We won’t see some one-to-one swapping for what used to be with something new. Replacement journalism will though give us the sense that new journalism, of high quality, is getting funded, somehow, and that the vacuum created by the deepest cut in reporting we’ve ever seen is starting to be filled. It is an important, graspable question not just for journalists and aspiring journalists welling up in schools across the country, but also for readers: Are we beginning to see significant, tangible news coverage in this new, mainly digital world?

So, let’s assess where we on, on that road to replacement journalism. Let’s start with some numbers. Take the most useful census of daily newspaper newsroom employment, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) census, conducted early each year and next reported out at its April 2011 conference. ASNE’s most current number is 41,500. That’s down from 46,700 a year earlier, from 52,600 in 2008 and from 55,000 in 2007. So, over those three-plus years, that’s a loss of 13,500 jobs, a 25-percent decline.

As we consider what’s been lost and what needs to replace it, we’ve got to look as much at possible at reporting. That news-gathering — not commentary (column or blog) — is what’s key to community information and understanding, fairly prerequisite in our struggling little democracy. While we don’t know how many of those 13,500 jobs lost are in reporting, we can do some extrapolation. Using that same ASNE census, we see that a little less than half (45 percent or so) of newsroom jobs are classified as reporting, while 20 percent are classified as copy/layout editors, 25 percent as supervisors and 10 percent as photographers and artists. So — while not undervaluing the contributions of non-reporters — let’s say, roughly, that half the jobs lost have been reporters. That would mean about 6,750 reporting jobs lost in three years.

Okay, so let’s use that number as a yardstick, against a quick list of journalist hiring:

  • Investigative and extended enterprise reporting: It’s tough to come up with any one number for investigative or long-form reporting in newspapers or in broadcast. We know that many newspapers and broadcasters have cut the investment in staff here, though, through the carnage of staff reduction. (One indication: “The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009″, according to Mary Walton in the American Journalism Review.) Into this breach have come the new ProPublica, the restyled Center for Investigative Reporting (with its California Watch, most notably) and the growing Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. They are joined by smaller centers from Maine to Wisconsin to California. Loss: Probably in the high hundreds. Gain: Probably in the small hundreds. Net: We’ve seen real high-quality replacement journalism, but need more, especially on the community level.
  • Washington, D.C. reporting: Dozens of D.C.-based reporting positions have been lost over the last several years, certainly, and the number may stretch into the hundreds. For awhile, the biggest news was that the Al Jazeera bureau was among the fastest-growing. Now, of course, there’s the goldrush in government-oriented reporting as the newly emboldened (and funded) National Journal group and Bloomberg Government add a couple of hundred positions, and join Politico in the D.C-based fray. With both new efforts still in formation, we’re not clear what kind of reporting they’ll do. If it’s mainly government-as-business (Bloomberg’s seeming model) and/or if it’s mainly behind pay wall, then then this new stuff will be less replacement-like. Covering public policy implications for all of us nationally, and the particular impacts on those of locally, is a key, yawning need. Loss: Significant. Gain: Substantial. Net: Unclear we see the words on our screens in 2011.
  • Hyperlocal reporting: The biggest news here is Patch, of course. With 500 sites in various stages of rollout, we can’t yet assess how much new reporting — and of what quality, what depth — will be added back, replaced. Add in the redeployment of many metro staff reporters from Hartford to Dallas to L.A., and the fact that smaller community dailies and weeklies have weathered the storms better than bigger papers. Loss: Uncountable, but real across the country. Gain: With Patch and with the re-attention of metros to smaller communities through staff redeployment and blog aggregation, it’s now substantial. Net: One of the most promising areas in replacement journalism.
  • Metro-level reporting: The devastation seems clearest here, with newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News cut to 125 newsroom staffers from 400 a decade ago, and many other dailies down by 50 percent or more. The bulk of cuts, as well chronicled by Erica Smith at Paper Cuts, appear to be at metros — and they are continuing; witness recent job losses in Sacramento and Miami and at USA Today. On the positive end of the ledger, the TBD-Bay Citizen-Voice of San Diego-MinnPost-Texas Tribune-Chicago News Cooperative parade has added real journalistic depth in selected markets. Yet, unless they grow substantially from the dozens they are — the public media push, though only in formation, is the most promising here — there’s a low replacement ratio. This is the biggest conundrum in front of us: how do we maintain current newsroom staffing of 340 at The Boston Globe or 325 at The Dallas Morning News, against the ravages of change? Loss: Huge. Gain: Spirited and of noteworthy excellence. Net: Biggest gap to fill — and the gap may be widening still.

“Replacement journalism,” of course, is a tricky term, and maybe only an interim notion — a handle that helps us from there to here to there. By the very nature of digital and business disruption and transformation, we have to remind ourselves that the future is never a straight line from past to future, and that it will offer us great positive surprises as well as continuing disappointments. William Gibson’s enduring line sums that up: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Photo by Matt Wetzler used under a Creative Commons license.

July 09 2010

12:15

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris denied U.S. visa to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard

It’s the time of year when the new class of Nieman Fellows starts arriving here in Cambridge, but we thought you should know about an unprecedented situation currently keeping one of our colleagues away. Hollman Morris Rincón, an independent journalist in Colombia, won a Nieman Fellowship this spring to study conflict negotiation strategies, international criminal court procedures, and the Rome Statute. I’ll just quote the AP:

BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. government has denied a visa to a prominent Colombian journalist who specializes in conflict and human rights reporting to attend a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University.

Hollman Morris, who produces an independent TV news program called “Contravia,” has been highly critical of ties between illegal far-right militias and allies of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America.

The curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, which has offered the mid-career fellowships since 1938, said Thursday that a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota told him Morris was ruled permanently ineligible for a visa under the “Terrorist activities” section of the USA Patriot Act.

Here’s a video of Hollman talking about human rights abuses in Colombia; here’s an interview from the Center for Investigative Reporting with Hollman and his brother and colleague Juan Pablo Morris about their work:

The Morris brothers take their cameras deep into the Colombian countryside to probe into the disappearance of thousands of individuals kidnapped over the past decade, and track efforts to unearth their graves far from the cosmopolitan capital city of Bogotá or the eyes of the international or global press. “Our aim,” Juan Pablo told us, “is to reconstruct the memory of those atrocities….Many of the people who followed the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 90s are running the country today.”

Contravia has uncovered links between paramilitary leaders and high officials in Colombian politics and finance. Thirty senators and representatives in the Colombian Congress have been imprisoned because of their ties to the paramilitary death squads; another sixty have been investigated. That’s a third of Colombia’s 268 member Congress, giving rise to a new term — ‘para-politica’ — to describe the ongoing crisis as one top politician after another is accused of complicity with the para-military squads. Most of those accused represent political parties that are part of the governing coalition led by President Alvaro Uribe.

Hollman Morris was given the Human Rights Defender Award by Human Rights Watch in 2007. He’s been forced to leave Colombia several times for extended periods after the airing of Contravía revelations. The show does not receive commercial backing; subsidies come from the Open Society Institute, the European Union and other international sources.

In February 2009, Contravía’s reporting prompted a denunciation by the government: Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, accused Hollman Morris on national radio of being “close to the guerillas,” after he conducted several interviews with FARC hostages who were later released. Uribe himself denounced Morris to the national press, and implied he was a member of the “intellectual bloc” of the FARC.

Santos is now the president-elect of Colombia and, ironically enough, was a Nieman Fellow himself while a newspaperman in the 1980s.

The independent website Colombia Reports reports on documents from April, allegedly from the Colombian security agency, that appear to call for surveillance and harassment of Hollman, including requesting “the suspension of visa.”

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

April 20 2010

14:00

“Revenue promiscuity”: The many ways in-depth and investigative reporting will be funded (hopefully)

John Thornton, the chairman of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, has a term he uses to describe how his investigative news venture will stay afloat: revenue promiscuity. “You have to get it everywhere and often,” Thornton told a crowd of journalists this weekend at the Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium.

Thorton’s crass imagery was a hit with the crowd and his fellow panelists, who agreed that funding high-quality investigative journalism can’t rely on just one or two sources of cash. The days of advertising and circulation revenue alone is over. We’re looking at a new era of mixed streams of revenue.

A spirited discussion — among The Washington Post’s Len Downie, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, Bay Citizen CEO Lisa Frazier, Newsosaur Alan Mutter, and Thornton — sketched a picture of a diverse (if uncertain) future for paying for the hardest of hard news. Here are three of the themes that emerged:

Beyond big money: tapping the grassroots

Just two years ago, whether or not foundations would step in to support investigative reporting was a point of discussion at this same seminar. This year, the question shifted to for how long — or for how many dollars — foundations will continue to do so.

Thornton, a venture capitalist who doubts investigative journalism works as a for-profit endeavor, said it’s not enough to think about foundation support. He described the Trib’s a public-radio-style model of tapping into reader donations to cover operating costs. Before The Texas Tribune launched, a splash page enticed 1,600 locals to give money to the site. (Thornton noted that all funding momentum stopped once the site actually launched: “Content is the enemy of conversion.”) Thornton hopes to pull in 10,000 supporters at an average of $100 each across the state over the next year. In three years, he hopes to pull in $3 million from readers, one third of the site’s operating costs. In addition, the Tribune plans to raise money by selling premium content and hosting live events.

For-profit plus

Alan Mutter, the panel’s most vocal proponent of a for-profit approach, argued that a strategy based on multiple revenue streams doesn’t have to exist in a nonprofit environment to work. Mutter proposed a multi-pronged approach, adding diversified revenue streams (from things like helping advertisers with their online presence, along with events and paid content) to more traditional ones — even if profit margins still wouldn’t be what they were in the glory days. Mutter’s pitch was received with some grumbling; Thornton said there’s no way news organizations can staff that kind of operation and still make money, the payoff of each wouldn’t make it profitable.

The future as experimentation

Frazier, of Bay Citizen, made clear that her yet-to-launch organization doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but that testing new ideas will be critical; she repeatedly referred to her operation as “an experiment.” She talked about using technology to make journalism more efficient (a.k.a. cheaper) to produce, but also said she’d be testing money-making models.

Rosenthal shared Frazier’s experimentation mentality, and offered some hope for anyone wondering about increased competition among nonprofits for foundation support. Two years ago Center for Investigative Reporting had a staff of about seven. Today it’s 26. “We’ve been remarkable in raising money.”

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

March 25 2010

15:15

Nieman Journalism Lab: For-profit model can’t support investigative journalism, says Len Downie

From Nieman, former Washington Post executive editor and Centre for Investigative Reporting board member Len Downie claims that the for-profit model can no longer support the kinds of investigative journalism that society needs. Journalists must instead embrace a variety of new economic models, he says. Downie also questions the sustainability of the non-profit organisations that have launched in recent years:

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: it’s not clear that all the non-profits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: how will the collaborative model settle out, and where will non-profits find productive niches?

Full post at this link…

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March 24 2010

14:00

Len Downie: For-profit news orgs won’t create enough journalism

By any measure, former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie epitomized success in the traditional, subscription-and-advertising model of newspaper journalism: With a staff that once topped 900 and an annual budget of $100 million, his newsroom hauled in 25 Pulitzer Prizes over 17 years and wielded influence from Congress to the darkest recesses of the nation’s capital.

Since stepping down from the Post’s top newsroom job at age 66, Downie has taken on a professorship at Arizona State University. But behind the scenes, he also is lending his experience to help shape the practices and prospects for the burgeoning nonprofit sector in journalism.

Why? Simple: Downie says the for-profit model alone no longer can support the kinds of investigative, explanatory, and accountability journalism that society needs. As the for-profit sector shrinks, journalists and interested readers must explore new ways to underwrite their work.

“There are going to have to be many different kinds of economic models,” Downie said in an interview at the Post’s offices. “The future is a much more diverse ecosystem.”

Downie has made himself an expert on the nonprofit model, and wrote about its possibilities in his recent report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” with Michael Schudson.

Less known, perhaps, is that Downie casts a wide net as within the nonprofit sector of journalism. He’s a board member at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which recently launched California Watch to cover money and politics at the state level. He also chairs the journalism advisory committee at Kaiser Health News, which has provided niche explanatory reporting to leading newspapers, including the Post. And he’s also on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors, which has incorporated panels on the nonprofit model into its conferences. (I should note that I am a part-time editor for the Washington Post News Service.)

Looking across the sector, Downie sees great potential — and some big, unanswered questions.

On the upside, nonprofits are helping journalism move toward a more collaborative model, Downie said. In the old days, newspapers resisted ideas and assistance from outside. But in the new news ecosystem, collaboration is a way of life. “All of our ideas have been changed about that,” he said.

Also a plus: Big foundations and the public at large are warming to the idea that news organizations are deserving of their support, just like the symphony or any other nonprofit that contributes to society’s cultural assets. “There’s a question of whether there’s enough public realization,” Downie said. “I think we’re heading to that direction. Awareness is growing steadily.”

But a lot of questions still must be sorted out, Downie said.

High on the list, he said, is the most basic of all: Where will the money come from? Like other nonprofits, nonprofit news organizations will have to find the right mix of foundation money, grassroots support, advertising, and perhaps additional government support, he said.

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: It’s not clear that all the nonprofits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: How will the collaborative model will settle out, and where nonprofits will find productive niches?

Downie said he also has been watching nonprofits wrestle with the issue of credibility — how to achieve it and how to keep it.

The answer begins with editorial independence and transparency about financial supporters, Downie said. But when it comes to painting a bright line between journalism and ideology, advocacy or spin, there are no magic formulas to assure readers — just the experience of trial and error.

“It’s one of these things that’s proven by its exceptions,” Downie said. “When there’s an exception, it’s a scandal.”

March 11 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of new news syndication

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

It’s tough to get the printer’s ink out of news people’s veins. For many, journalism = printing, and in printing, each copy costs extra. It’s an analog, manufacturing mindset, and one to finally bid goodbye.

Of course, we all know how freely we can fling stories about on the web, but second copy value — and cost — has an evolving business model implication, as the news industry looks for new pillars of support. That business model implication is syndication. Syndication in the old world meant the syndicates — among them, King Features, Universal Press Syndicate and now-put-up-for-sale United Media —and it meant wires, like AP, Reuters, and AFP, all of whom built big businesses on the increasing margin in the second, third and fourth copies of editorial content created and redistributed. Other syndicators (think Lexis-Nexis and Factiva) have built big businesses, selling multiple copies of stories to corporations and governments for their workforces and to schools of every level and size.

Now, we’re beginning to see next-generation syndication embraced by digital news startups, and that’s good news, a good supplement to advertising and sponsorship revenues, to membership charges and conferences.

Take GlobalPost for example. GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni embraced syndication as a revenue source from the site’s early planning and rollout. “I knew I needed multiple revenue streams to support our business, and syndication of our original content — in a world of rapidly diminishing international reporting — seemed like a no-brainer to me especially given our pricing flexibility.”

GlobalPost now gets about 12 percent of its overall revenue from syndication. It shares its correspondents’ posts with about 30 newspaper, broadcast and other news sites in the U.S. and worldwide. It counts among its clients CBS News, New York Daily News, the Times of India, Australian Associated Press, Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the Newark Star Ledger. Sites pay a monthly flat rate and can use their fill of GlobalPost stories. In addition to web use, print publications can and do use them in print as well.

GlobalPost isn’t alone. Politico added a syndication network, the Politico Media Network, to its bag of tricks early on. For Politico, it’s a multi-pocket pool play, leveraging a related advertising network around the syndication and its own partnership with Reuters.

California Watch, the new initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is figuring out the contours of its syndication business. Early in its life, it has found daily newspapers, broadcasters, start-ups and the ethnic press to be eager customers of its work, with some big stories reaching audiences of two million or more. Early on, CIR has priced its work fairly inexpensively, in the low hundreds of dollars. As it is getting traction, it is thinking of syndication as a key business model and will test pricing models over the next year

The Chicago News Cooperative, the supplier of local news coverage for the Chicago edition of The New York Times, operates on a similar principle, able to sell stories to multiple customers.

The principle here is devilishly simple — but has not been well enough applied. It’s been described from the inception of the Internet: the second copy is free (or really close to free). It’s also part of a basic Newsonomics law, Law #9: Apply the 10% Rule. Let technology do the value multiplication, not expensive-to-hire-and-feed humans.

Every syndication dollar earned is another dollar that doesn’t have to be wrung out of highly competitive advertising markets. Importantly, the syndication dollars derive from what journalism organizations do best: create high-quality content. The big notion: create better-than-good-enough content, the kind of stuff that is beginning to flood the web. It’s another way to affirm worth: the more companies that want to use your content, the clearer the value proposition in the digital world.

So what’s old is new again. In addition, syndication offers the potential of selling beyond traditional media that may offer significant new revenues. For local news companies, established for more than a hundred years or a few months, it’s a destination-plus model. It’s not about readers coming to your site; it’s about getting people to read your content —and get paid for it. It’s also — witness the Politico model — a way to enable an ad network, related to syndicated content. In fact, I can envision a range of locally oriented sites — from the Yelps, Open Tables and Zillows to government sites to niche mom’s and family sites and beyond — that may find use for various kinds of content. The first step for would-be syndicators: inventory and categorize what you have, and talk to would-be customers about what they might want to use.

Some have said that in the digital world, news companies need to think of themselves both as creators and aggregators, doing what they do best and linking to the rest. Let’s amend that: creators, aggregators, and syndicators, doing what they do best, licensing with zest and linking to the rest.

January 05 2010

18:00

California Watch: The latest entrant in the dot-org journalism boom

“Ten years ago,” says Mark Katches, editorial director of California Watch, “there were 85 reporters covering the California state house; today there are fewer than 25.”

Katches sees California Watch, which officially launched yesterday after a soft launch period and months of preparation, as stepping into a “big void in doing investigative work in California.” Katches has assembled the largest investigative team in the state: seven reporters, two multimedia producers, and two editors.

The site is focused on investigative watchdog journalism. It won’t cover the ins and outs of the California legislature or other governmental minutiae, aiming instead to “expose injustice, waste, mismanagement, wrongdoing, questionable practices and corruption, so that those responsible can be held to account and the public is armed with the information it needs to debate solutions and spark change.” Besides political topics, the site will cover higher education, health and welfare, and criminal justice.

Assembling the team

Based in Berkeley, California Watch has a four-person team in Sacramento, and hopes to open a Los Angeles office as well. 

The team’s credentials are impressive. Katches is a California native who lived in the state most of his life; he directed investigative teams at The Orange County Register and for the past two years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The team’s director is Louis Freedberg, a longtime reporter on California affairs for the San Francisco Chronicle and other state and national publications. Senior editor Robert Salladay is a veteran of the L. A. Times; senior reporter Lance Williams has 32 years of California coverage experience and was one of the two reporters at the Chronicle who uncovered the Barry Bonds-BALCO steroid doping scandal.  Web entrepreneur Susan Mernit, a veteran of AOL, Netscape and Yahoo, supplies web strategy. Multimedia guru Mark Luckie (of 10,000 Words fame) is producing content. And longtime Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Robert Rosenthal, director of CIR, and others on the CIR staff supply development and administrative support.

I asked Katches whether California Watch is doling out the kind of salaries reported to be going to the top talent at recent nonprofit startup Texas Tribune ($315,000 to CEO Evan Smith, $90,000 to top reporter Brian Thevenot). “Not even close,” he said. Top California Watch executives are paid closer to what Texas Tribune reporters get, but Katches says the pay scales are competitive and appropriate for the levels of talent and scope of management involved.

The model

The site aims for up to a dozen updates every weekday, including daily blog entries by most staffers. A rotation of four top stories are featured front and center, followed by the “WatchBlog” and an inside-the-newsroom feature. Like The Texas Tribune, the site offers an extensive data center, currently featuring information about stimulus-funding distribution, campaign finance, educational costs, and wildfires. It’s not as extensive or interactive as the Texas Trib databases and document collection, but the intent is to build up its contents over time.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest nonprofit investigative news organization in the country (founded 1977), and joins a growing list of state and regional nonprofits that have in common a serious journalistic mission but take a variety of approaches to funding, coverage and distribution. The highest profile, best-funded members of that list now include The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, Voice of San Diego, and (at a national level) ProPublica. “The dot-org boom” is really one of the top journalism stories of 2009, Katches says.

CIR garnered about $3.5 million in funding to start California Watch (roughly the same amount as The Texas Tribune), enough for more than two years of operations at its $1.5 million annual budget. Major funding came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation [also a supporter of this site —Ed.], the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.

Going forward, California Watch plans to develop a business model that includes continued philanthropic support, along with revenue from sponsorship, individual memberships, advertising, and licensing. The site is offering its content to the state’s newspapers and other media on a fee basis. One of its first stories during the development period was carried by 25 of the state’s papers, all on the front page. (This fee-based model differs from The Texas Tribune, which is offering its content free to Texas media outlets for now; Texas Tribune also covers day-to-day politics in addition to doing investigative journalism.) California Watch partners with KQED in San Francisco for radio and TV distribution; with the Associated Press for distribution through its Exchange marketplace; and with New America Media for distribution of translated versions to ethnic media.

December 14 2009

16:30

Are news nonprofits doomed to reliance on big gifts? A study in fundraising — and sustainability

I’ve been studying journalism nonprofits one way or another for about five years now, and I confess that in all that time, I’ve looked at their business models really as being slightly different iterations of the same species. But now, I’m not so sure.

As part of my graduate studies in nonprofit management at George Washington University, this fall I took a closer look at the finances of a dozen journalism nonprofits, keeping in mind the most pressing question for many: How can they diversify revenues and achieve some level of sustainability?

I acknowledge up front that my method was not perfect — I’ll explain at the end — but I think I’ve discovered what may be two critical distinctions within the group I studied.

First, the six nonprofits that served geographically defined communities — whether they be cities, states or regions — generally did a better job of diversifying their revenue sources than did those that attempted to speak to a national audience.

Second, among these “regionals,” there appeared to be some correlation between bigger budgets and greater diversity in revenues sources. This pattern suggested to me that there is a happy dynamic at work here — a virtuous cycle in which diversity of revenue helps create institutional heft that in turn attracts additional philanthropy in the form of major individual gifts and foundation grants.

What are the diverse sources that these nonprofits are tapping? For lack of a better descriptor, I lumped them together under the heading of “transactional” revenues — advertising, subscriptions, memberships, royalties, event ticket sales, contract research, and anything else that didn’t go under the “direct public support” line on Form 990. Some of these sources are taxable, some are not, and the difference was not always clear. Different nonprofits treated similar revenues in different ways. But I digress.

Regional news nonprofits: With size comes funding diversity

Here’s the graph that shows the correlation between average annual budget and a declining dependence on direct public support:

If this trend holds true, I think it would portend a relatively bright future for the nonprofit model as a major contributor in places like city halls and state capitals where newspaper bureaus have been emptied out. These are the places where the disintegration of the newspaper business model is most obvious to readers — and where for-profit alternatives have a hard time realizing returns on investment. Here, the case for philanthropy is clear — and so is a nonprofit’s potential to supplement its revenues with advertising and other market-driven revenues streams as it scales up its operations.

The trend also suggests a cruel and ironic corollary: The journalism nonprofits that can demonstrate the least dependence on foundations and large gifts may be the most likely to succeed in winning them.

National news nonprofits: Greater dependence on large gifts

At the same time, studying the finances of six “nationals” caused me to look at those organizations in a wholly different light.

Like the regionals, journalism nonprofits with national aspirations are feeling pressure to diversify their revenue base beyond foundations and founding donors. And at least some are looking to the regionals’ success for tactics they can replicate — witness ProPublica’s hiring of Watershed Co., a consultancy with expertise in online and grassroots fundraising. But from what I’ve seen, most depend on major gifts and foundation grants regardless of size. Here’s a graph showing average annual budget and dependence on direct public support:

As I reported here in September, Madeline Stanionis, Watershed’s CEO, pronounced herself “skeptical” of prospects for building a national network of small donors. As Stanionis said at the time, donors to political and other “citizen-powered” campaigns have been conditioned to believe that the candidate or institution that receives their donations will respond directly to their demands. But journalism does not — and should not — operate that way, she said. “I just think trying to force a journalistic endeavor into a hole created by these campaigns is not correct,” she said.

My suspicion is that the “nationals” also suffer from being one too many levels of abstraction from readers’ lives. Their reports, however compelling in their conclusions, don’t explain to the reader why city sewer rates are so high or why the state legislature just slashed school spending. As Mike Worth, my graduate advisor and GW’s former vice president for development, remarked: “The problem with the case (for philanthropy) is that it’s intellectual. Nobody ever died from lack of public journalism.” The latter might be debatable, but I think he’s got it right.

What’s the lesson here? I think there are two, either (or both) of which may be a blinding glimpse of the obvious.

First, the nationals have a solid track record of tapping foundation support and keeping it flowing over a long period. Here, I’m thinking of the Center for Public Integrity, which has relied almost exclusively on foundations and major gifts since Chuck Lewis founded it 20 years ago. Why tamper with success? The only real benefit from the time and effort required to build a grassroots network may be the added credibility of having to answer to an audience. This is doubly true for those such as CPI and ProPublica that specialize in investigative work and also claim to be nonpartisan and/or non-ideological.

The second lesson is that any effort to build a grassroots network at the national level is going to require a lot of refinement. There are simply too many competing news sources and too many requests for support. Breaking through all that background noise is an enormous challenge. Best of luck to those that try.

Except for Mother Jones

Now here’s the big exception to the rule: Mother Jones. Among the nationals, MoJo stood out in its time-tested ability to pull revenue from all kinds of sources — advertising, memberships, events and investment income. Steve Katz, the magazine’s chief fundraiser, tells me that the model is an outgrowth of a deliberate effort to define and serve a particular constituency.

In an email, Steve told me that MoJo has “worked mightily to make the case that you won’t find our kind of point of view anywhere else, and that our journalism is also rooted in a ‘value proposition’ a.k.a. a point of view a.k.a. a politics, and hence our journalism — which must stand on its own as professional grade work — is also about changing the world.”

I’ll buy that. But I also think that if you take Steve’s view to its ultimate conclusion in our current economic and technological environment, it points to a tough road ahead for news organizations trying to replicate the newspaper model of objectivity in the online world. The new national news organizations most likely to prosper are those that already have a built-in constituency — or a primary purpose other than producing journalism.

Here, I am thinking of David Westphal’s reporting on Human Rights Watch and its transformation from journalism source to journalism producer. As David noted in his recent testimony at the Federal Trade Commission: “A key point here is that not all of the new players are news organizations.” This trend raises important questions about governance and process within nonprofits — how they try (if they try at all) to insulate their news-gathering operations from their advocacy, much as newsrooms were separated from advertising departments at newspapers.

Where does it all go from here? In my view, the nonprofit model will shake out into two, three or maybe four discrete models, depending on reach and mission. Like cousins, at first glance, they’ll look somewhat alike and may get together once a year for reunions. But each will have its own distinct direction, habits, inclinations — and contributions to the public debate.

A note on the methodology: How’d I select the 12 nonprofits for my study? Frankly, it wasn’t very scientific; it was more an exercise in putting together a fact pattern. I began by listing the nonprofits I knew that (a) existed primarily to produce journalism and (b) had revenues of $100,000 or more a year, and 3) had filed their Form 990 tax returns someplace where I could find them online.

The list worked out to an even dozen, with six that I considered to be national in reach (ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting, Mother Jones, The Nation, Grist) and six that were primarily regional (Texas Observer, High Country News, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, Chi-Town Daily News, New Haven Independent).

From there, I assembled all available revenue data from 2002 onward a developed an annual average for each nonprofit’s revenues and the percentage of revenues derived from “direct public support.” Then I plotted them on two graphs, one for regionals and the other for nationals.

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