October 22, 2009

New News Co-ops: Evolution Happens

Once shunned for its suspiciously reddish tinge, the word “cooperative” may have regained utility, and credibility, in the vocabulary of journalism business models.

As the newly formed Chicago News Cooperative appears to demonstrate, it’s not just a way of organizing journalists when the traditional model is failing; it’s also a means for undercapitalized commercial media companies to offload the expense of maintaining their own local/regional newsrooms.

A New Type of News Nonprofit
Though I don’t think we’re quite dealing with a new dawn for anarcho-syndicalist worker’s coops, the emergence of the Pocantico community — a diverse group of investigative-news nonprofits that have banded together to share resources and multiply impacts — has been followed by this more regional, heartlands venture.

The Chicago News Cooperative, as reported by Poynter, will get its startup funding from the MacArthur Foundation, and support from local public radio and TV outlets.

Its first major client will be the New York Times; the CNC will produce two original pages of content for the Gray Lady’s Chicago edition.

It’s telling to note that a major commercial news outlet such as the Times is now embracing nonprofit newsrooms as an affordable source of quality local/regional coverage. A similar effort is emerging in San Francisco, with the Times getting local content from the semi-cooperative (and semi-controversial!) Bay Area News Project.

Emerging Trends
The Times also dipped its toe in the nonprofit waters earlier this year, offloading onto Spot.Us the expense of sending a freelancer reporter to the Pacific Garbage Patch. The breakthrough crowdfunding service (disclaimer: My own Newsdesk.org project is an ongoing Spot.us partner) has raised more than $6,000 for this purpose — though one wonders why a multi-billion-dollar media corporation couldn’t have shelled out the dough itself; are there are some murky lines being crossed?

Regardless, the breakthrough here is the twofold acceleration of new trends in organizational and revenue development:

  • Journalists are self-organizing into cooperative business organizations that are more responsive to their needs than existing commercial and “dinosaur” nonprofit structures. 
  • Commercial news outlets, starved for resources and battered by Wall Street economics, are increasingly turning to lean nonprofit service providers to develop public-interest coverage that is not viable under a for-profit business model. (The Associated Press offers a precedent for this, though that agency itself is a dinosaur, and potentially vulnerable to increasing competition from smaller, emergent nonprofit networks and agencies.)

The “market pain” is clear. Unless there’s some dramatic change in journalism business models nationwide turn for the better for commercial journalism business models, these new trends will come to define news production in the 21st century.

Traditional for-profit news outlets, meanwhile, could largely become hollow brands, mass-market vehicles for lighter content about sports, entertainment, political “chatter” and requisite ambulance chasing, and turning to nonprofit third parties for the serious stuff that doesn’t quite capture eyeballs en masse like Octomom.

Whether this is a final state for 21st century journalism, or just another step in the transformation of the news sector, remains to be seen.

But there will be much, much more of it.