Introducing: The Watershed Media Project

The Watershed Media Project is an initiative to research and develop grassroots funding, production and promotional models for independent, public-interest journalism and media.

Watershed is a nonprofit, fiscally sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media; it is also a slow-media project that will eschew the frantic pace and expectations of today’s digital startup culture in favor of small, simple, incremental goals achieved over longer periods of time.

The “watershed” metaphor is inspired by Planet Drum Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit group that advocates for building human societies designed for sustainability at the watershed and “bioregional” level.

From an essay on mass media I wrote for their newsletter:

Information is like water. Our survival depends on it. It’s harmful or healthful depending on its origin, and on what people do to it before it gets in your system. Its use and availability is enormously profitable, and of the highest humanitarian and social concern.

From the community meeting hall and the local-news blog on up, the free flow of information is the water cycle of democracy, sustaining entire ecosystems of civic discourse and cultural exchange.

Just as estuaries and watersheds are vulnerable to industrial activity and unsustainable development, democratic institutions and processes are deeply influenced by commercial and financial interests. Mass media is a toxic mess, awash with false memes, fear mongering, destructive double-standards and routine ethical compromise. Media equivalents of Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima happen all the time. Pollution accumulates in the mental environment like mercury and PCBS in the water tables.

My first significant publishing gig, back in 1992, was as editor of Planet Drum’s annual journal Raise the Stakes — issue No. 22, which in retrospect was a somewhat prescient edition.

We dug deep on topics such as cultivating native food crops, seed saving for diversity, permaculture “food forests” that bear diversely all year long, community-sponsored agriculture (CSA farms), organic and least-toxic farming — topics that would in subsequent decades end up inspiring marketing and political campaigns alike.

That linkage — between ecology, sustainability, culture and history — has stayed with me over the years, and when Judy Goldhaft from Planet Drum asked me this past summer to write something for their print newsletter, the dots began to connect up.

Having just returned from the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver, I was impressed by how Planet Drum’s vision of sustainability had so much resonance with commonplace media-reform and future-of-journalism metaphors such as “information ecosystem” and “news ecology.”

These are easy metaphors, even seductive, and yet taking them seriously begins to compel questions. What, for example, are the funding watersheds that sustain these media-based ecosystems? How does one measure and ensure their health and sustainability?

The questions run deep, the terrain they open up is broad. Watershed Media will serve as home base for a few hopeful expeditions and surveys.

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.