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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 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.”

January 06 2010

15:00

Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

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