Noted: “Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”

Tom Stites, an accomplished and indeed storied news hound (and a mentor and great inspiration to me), has produced this important article about the continuing decline in civic investment and recognized value of journalism, and original reporting in particular.

Read it, share it. You already live it.

“Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”
http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/12/tom-stites-taking-stock-of-the-state-of-web-journalism/
By Tom Stites

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable.

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur ….

Read the whole essay at Harvard’s Neiman Lab Dot Org.

Delivery matters.

So you produce some top-shelf coverage, but the target population — the people who need to see it — are not connecting. Why not? More to the point: How do you solve that?

Enter California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Turns out they have an on-staff Public Engagement Manager, who made this cool thing happen:

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

A fine example of nonprofit journalism making itself matter.

Source: “California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want,” Poynter Online, June 23, 2011

The case for New Public Media

It is a curious thing, in an era of revolutionary change in the media landscape, that journalists and editors have gained so little.

The Internet has been a boon for citizen media. It’s like Neal Postman’s pre-telegraph America, the original media convergence of spoken word and written text. The Lyceums and Chautauquas, the newspapers and pamphleteers — they’ve come full circle, virtually.

Corporations are also gaining ground. Rocked by layoffs, consolidation and cutbacks, they are nonetheless monetizing online media, and rather expediently.

Journalists and editors, however — the ones doing the actual work of producing and publishing news — have neither the editorial and topical freedom of the blogger, nor the economic opportunity of the corporations.

They are the ones getting laid off, consolidated and cut back, as journalism’s civic necessity is trumped by quarter-to-quarter financial expediency.

Speaking in September 2008 at the Knight Foundation’s Silicon Valley forum on community information needs, Mike McGuire, a research VP at Gartner, asked: If content really is king, why are content producers getting the short end of the stick? Why not start cutting sales staff at failing media outlets instead of reporters and editors?

In fact, cutting ad revenue altogether would have an additional, significant benefit directly related to journalism’s situation: It would relieve the newsroom of outside economic pressures that impede the practice of journalism in the public interest.

This was precisely what motivated earlier rounds of public-media investment in the United States, producing such institutions as All Things Considered and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Yet for all their merits, these programs — highly centralized, capital intensive, grounded in Wall Street and Washington, D.C. — are not replicable, particularly not locally and regionally, where the need is so acute.

So what would constitute “New Public Media”?

In my own experience, for example, fiscal sponsorship is a great “platform service” to support community-focused media, arts and cultural ventures. The challenge we continually face is doing more than just providing sponsorship, which is a complex service involving multiple legal and financial considerations. To really be “new public media,” let’s set a few benchmarks:

  • Independently produced, using various sorts of network and nonprofit infrastructure (e.g. producer collaborations, crowdfunding, open-source and digital media, fiscal sponsorship).
  • Funded primarily or significantly by direct community and public donations, membership dues, or some other aggregated type of individual support.
  • Donor is investing a public service, not buying a private product, and in giving develops a higher level of engagement with with the content produced.
  • The media content is non-commercial, relevant to diverse, underserved communities, and unavailable in via legacy mass media.

New Public Media deepens the resources and independence of the journalist and media producer, giving them new autonomy to cover underserved communities and important but overlooked news.

However, investment in its infrastructure — “platform” services such as fiscal sponsorship (the subject of my own efforts with Independent Arts & Media) — is hard to come by.

Funders need to look at new ways to support productive capacity in underserved communities, by supporting platform services such as fiscal sponsorship. Individual producers need to explore ways to collaborate around “overlap” activities such as marketing, fundraising, and administration.

These are conditions, really, that can help new types of public media emerge.