The Eric Black piece in MinnPost about the hotfooting of Cheney and his advisers over Sy Hersh’s “assassin squad” accusations is just excellent. This is just one example of the work that non-profit papers can afford to do, and the unorthodox ways in which they are willing to allow their reporters to put stories together. And according to MinnPost editor Joel Kramer, readers are very interested in their local reporters’ take on national news. No wonder.
From Dunstan McNichol in The New Republic via Allen Mutter at Newsosaur.
Nieman Journalism Lab has two inspiring and instructive pieces from Joel Kramer of and Margaret Wolf Freivogel of the St. Lous Beacon. They, along with Scott Lewis, Buzz Woolley and the team at VoiceofSandiego –and Paul Steiger, Dick Tofel and their team at ProPublica–form what I see as the vanguard of the non-taxable journalism movement. All of these folk are doing stunning work with stunningly little resource. I was especially inspired my Margaret:
Having spent 34 years working in print, I know that much newsroom effort is geared toward playing up stories that will appeal to “everyone” — an elusive concept that often results in lowest common denominator coverage of little interest to anyone. Digital stories, we’re learning, get traction when they’re very interesting to some group of people — usually those who are knowledgeable about the issue and eager to learn more. By digging deeply on questions that matter, we can construct a path to understanding complicated issues, and anyone’s access to this path is just a mouse click away.
But what struck me most bluntly in reading both pieces is the importance of experimentation. Both MinnPost and Beacon found out that many of their ingoing assumptions about what would drive traffic were wrong. A grander discussion is whether traffic is actually the objective function–as opposed to interjecting substantive investigative reporting into the stream of public dialog. But God bless both organizations–and both CEOs–for making such a discussion possible.
I was very taken by this short note from Arnon Miskin from media bankers Mitchell Madison. Why won’t newspapers work online? Well, arithmetic, for one:
The newspaper companies have created enormous traffic to their local websites. This week they announced that over half of American web users use newspaper web sites, and that they produce over 3 billion monthly page views. Unfortunately that’s not nearly enough. Even if they were able to sell advertising at slightly over $10 per thousand–a very high average–they would generate only $450 million per year–or about 10% of the cost of running America’s newsrooms
Sure, the newsrooms report bigger numbers for the digital revenue, but that’s the result of wrapping such ad content around their offline classified sales.
Another thoughtful and more micro analysis is undertaken by Alan Mutter here on the chances for SeattlePI.com.
If 2008 was the annus horibilis for newspaper journalism in the U.S., then Q1:09 will go down as quartus catastrophus. Well, it probably won’t, but you get the picture. Newspaper bankruptcies, closings, delivery stoppages: this week’s announcements of 30% newsroom cuts at Hearst papers in Houston and Atlanta –alarming events in themselves–registered nary a ripple in the meta media.
Apropos of the moment, the debate over the future of journalism has been breathtakingly brisk and nearly untrackable. Fortunately, to our aid comes NYU wise man Jay Rosen, with his “Flying Seminar in the Future of News.” With characteristic humility, Rosen lays confesses what we’re all grappling with:
I don’t know what will replace the newspaper journalism we have relied on. It’s a terrible loss for the public when people who bought the public service dream lose their jobs providing that service, and realizing that dream. I do not look forward to explaining to my students the contractions in the job market and why they’re likely to continue for the near term. It feels grim to have to say: “There is no business model in news right now. We’re between systems.
Rosen lays out a dozen articles and posts in the last month alone that form a framework for thinking about this important and messy set of topics. The first five are absolutely must reads if this stuff really interests you; I might quibble with some of the selections below that but so little as not to bother.
I would, however, recommend some additions that didn’t make Jay’s one-month cutoff.
Although the journalism blogosphere has been talking to each other about this stuff for a long time, the mainstreaming of the discussion really began with David Swensen and Michael Schmidt in their 1/29 NYT piece, “News You Can Endow.” Along with Steve Coll, who I know had been thinking about non-profit newspapers for a while, these guys really introduced to the general public the idea that the newspapers have served a critical function in our retail democracy, and that market-based solutions might not suffice in preserving their role. I wrote a postabout Swensen/Schmidt and Coll that linked to both.
Also worth reading are the responses to the Swensen/Schmidt piece that the NYT printed a few days later. I especially liked Nicholas Leman’s line of thinking:
What’s essential right now is that we be precise about the social function we need to strengthen, and creative and non-doctrinaire about how to strengthen it.
Another Coll post on the Swensen/Schmidt piece is here. His response to Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” (#4 on Rosen’s list) is another one I would place on the must-read list. Same is true for Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece from last spring, which covers many of the historical antecedents for the current state of play. His more recent thinking can be found in The Nation.
Coll’s New American Foundation also hosted a panel on the future of newspapers, the video of which I have not been courageous enough to watch, because I’m in it. But it can be found here.
It’s also very much worth reading the views of people who think that non-profit status and journalism don’t belong together. They generally divide into two schools of thought. The first is what I’ll call the “Original Sin” school, which holds that if the news business could somehow shove the genie of free content back into the bottle, all would be well. This is the ground plowed by Alan Mutter, #12 on Prof. Rosen’s list. NYT media critic David Carr also got a lot of play for his suggestion of an “iTunes for news.” But I found Clay Shirky to be the clearest thinker on the prospects of charging for content in a world of zero cost distribution. (Hint: they aren’t good, as is highlighted in this exchangebetween Mort Zuckerman and Walter Isaacson, whose cover piece about the future of news appeared in Time). And finally, a terrifically exhaustive treatment of pretty much every argument for and against the future of paid content can be found here.
The second school of thinking is what I’ve described, with some ignominy, as the “pony theory.” As in “if it looks like horse poo and smells like horse poo, there must be a ponty in there somewhere.” Pony Theorists believe in markets uber alles and are fond of such phrases as “we’re in the early innings;” “we must have market discipline;” and my favorite: that the disappearance of the serious journalism just simply isn’t that big a deal, because markets would would be giving it to us if we needed it. I, of course think this is faulty reasoning, because I believe that serious journalism is a public good, not unlike clean air and national defense. Public goods, by definition, are not produced in optimal quantities by market forces, and government is the solution to most such market failures. For obvious reasons, government is not such a swift answer to a market failure in the coverage of government. But a number of intelligent folk remain particularly strident in their confidence in they place in “the market”: Allison Fine, Dorian Benkoil, Steve Brill. The market-solution advocate who received the biggest shout out from his fellows was Jonathan Weber, the founder of the admirable for-profit site NewWest.net (which, I can’t resist pointing out, appears to have state government agencies as two of its biggest advertisers). His piece covers all the bases of the argments against non-profit journalism. I disagree with it almost entirely, but perhaps that’s the subject for another day.
Whew. Anyhow, thanks again to Jay for his flying seminar.
As has been widely reported, junior Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin has introduced a bill to allow newspapers to adopt 501c3 status. According to Cardin spokesperson Susan Sullam, “this is really aimed at community papers” or newspapers that may be bought and turned into non-profits.
In addition, Sen. Cardin did give a nice ode to newspaper journalism on the floor of the Senate:
Most, if not all sources of journalistic information, from Google to broadcast news or punditry,” Cardin said, “gain their original news from the laborious and expensive work of experienced newspaper reporters, diligently working their beat over the course of years, not hours.”“Newspaper reporters forge relationships with people: they build a network which creates avenues to information. These relationships and the information that follows are essential to a free democratic society.”
‘‘(1) the trade or business of such corporation or organization consists of publishing on a regular basis a newspaper for general circulation, (2) the newspaper published by such corporation or organization contains local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose, and (3) the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally accepted as educational in character.’’.
Double hmm, especially on that last bit.
Does anybody understand what exactly Senator Cardin is trying to accomplish? If a 501c3 wanted to buy the Dallas Morning News, couldn’t it already do so? I guess there might be some existing barriers to converting an extant paper to non-profit status that this would clear up, but I can’t really think of them. And of course the biggest issue is what to do with those pesky shareholders who aren’t feeling especially philanthropic.
Given Michigan’s economic woes, I suppose it’s not surprising that Newhouse is taking a hatchet to the eight dailies it owns there. Both Detroit papers are ceasing home delivery on most days next week.
But–Ann Arbor? It’s tough to see how a print local daily anywhere survives if it can’t make it in the home of the nation’s largest university. Or maybe Newhouse thinks it’s the perfect place for the online only experiment? I’d like to be optimisitic. But it’s a little tough, given that typing
“annarbornews.com” into my browser directs me to something called “mlive” (tagline: all things Michigan) and has no mention of the Newhouse move that was reported in today’s WSJ.
Ironically, the WSJ also reports on the economic resilience of college towns, and implies that Ann Arbor’s unemployment rate is half or less of the national average.