Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NGOs as credible news sources: This one says absolutely

I've been interviewing some interesting people lately on the topic of foundation-funded journalism (or philanthropy-funded journalism). The occasion is the one-year anniversary of a meeting in New York sponsored in part by the USC Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

As we know very well, A LOT has happened since then, so I'm going to be writing a report soon on what participants make of the non-profit journalism world these days.

As part of the project, I'm going to blog about some of my interviews as I go. Last week I blogged about a proposal by Alex Jones of the Shorenstein Center that would establish a $2 billion endowment for PBS' "NewsHour." (One hour of very high-quality journalism available to everyone with a television.)

Today I blogged about a conversation I had with Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch on the idea of NGOs as new sources of journalism. Carroll believes that organizations like Human Rights Watch will become more credible sources of news than traditional news organizations are today. Interestingly, a bigger question for her is pushback from researchers at Human Rights Watch who are nervous about having part of their shop turned into a news organization.

Next week I'm planning to blog about another nonprofit niche -- national investigative reporting organizations.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Tonight, a look at the creation side of creative destruction

In class tonight we'll talk about the vast array of news sites now operating in the United States -- and of the pace of growth. I'm struck by how much is out there and how quickly the universe is expanding.

A group met recently in Washington to talk about the state of journalism jobs. One presenter, University of Maryland journalism professor Leslie Walker, said she's "completely confident" that in 15 or 20 years there will be more online journalism jobs than there are in newspapers today.
One man's guide for operating a news site

Despite the fact that Jonathan Weber's Web site, NewWest, hasn't made a dime of profit in its four years of existence, he's an adamant believe in the for-profit model. Staying 100 percent exposed to the free market will be the only way he and other Web site operators will be able to survive he says.

In a new post, Weber offers up some basic guidelines on how a community news site could survive and thrive. One key Weber has pioneered: sponsorship of conferences and meetings that charge $150, $300 or $500 for attendance. It's a way to build revenue without having a hand out, as well as a good building block for creating community.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Here's a new way to feature your work

One of the Annenberg centers I'm associated with, the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, is launching a new blog feature that you might want to check out -- and even write for. It's an aggregation of news stories and blogs on new business models for news. Two areas the blog will especially focus on are government regulation and subsidies, and non-profit funders such as foundations and philanthropists.

The center earlier began featuring some original content by your instructors and others affiliated with the center, and we hope to continue and even accelerate that. We're also looking to make it more of a USC place to go by linking to content on these topics that's generated around Annenberg.

Your class blogs (or others you write for) might be good candidates from time to time for this aggregation. All of you have written about interesting developments on the news innovation front, and this aggregation might draw you a bigger crowd. If you'd like to nominate one of your new posts, send an e-mail to Rebecca Shapiro (, who's helping me do the aggregation.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Digital revolution: No one single story

There's a dominant story unfolding in the media world these days -- the fast decline of newspapers and other mainstream media. But as Steve Yelvington notes in his reliably smart blog, our tendency to look for a single story (or averages) really masks the truer individual stories of successes and failures.

He noted, for example, that one Gannett newspaper is still making a profit margin of 45 percent!!

Another new blog post, from Editor and Publisher, strikes the same theme. Community and suburban newspapers are doing much, much better than metropolitan newspapers. Advertising was down 6.6 percent in the fourth quarter for these newspapers, their associations reported. Compare that to the 17-18 percent decline reported in a number of big newspaper companies.

Nancy Lane of the Suburban Newspapers of America had this to say about the group's performance:

"Community papers are affected by the current economic downturn but they are not in a crisis; they are not experiencing massive layoffs and they are investing in the future."

Friday, February 27, 2009

There's destruction, yes; also creation

The stories of destruction in the news-media revolution come every day now, and it's a safe bet the pace will quicken. It will be hard to watch, and also hard to quit watching. But the creative side of this "creative destruction" story is well under way.

I've been watching the springing up of small, community news sites -- usually 1 or 2-person operations -- and thought I'd pass along a couple of data points. Both refer to for-profit community sites that are 6-8 months old, and run purely on advertising:

-- The husband/wife team that runs Ann Arbor Chronicle already is making enough revenue to pay household bills, including health insurance.

-- Bob Gough, who single-handedly runs Quincy News, takes home a salary of $1,000 a week. This in an Illinois town of 40,000 with a daily newspaper and 2 local TV stations as competitors.

Both of these operations -- and other for-profits I wrote about at OJR yesterday -- are hanging tough in the current recession, and even expect to expand during it. Ultimately, no one knows if they, or other new models, will make it. But I think they're good examples of opportunities that are opening up and will open up, not just city-wide operations but also neighborhood sites and topic-centered sites. Note the new community projects the NYT is launching.

It's hardly unrealistic for an Annenberg student to think that he or she could leave USC and be the instant creator of one of these sites -- with bucket loads of growth potential.

Update: Jane Stevens, a visiting fellow at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, also wrote this week about the new community sites being rapidly created. She cited some of my OJR blog but also gave a rich report on the large number of neighborhood sites in Seattle. Here's her post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How are community news sites faring?

I'm working on a blog for OJR that tries to assess the financial health of some of the community news startups. So far, I'm finding some encouraging responses -- though it's early.

One of them is from a respected new-media pioneer, Jonathan Weber, who runs the New West Web site. It's an interesting hybrid in that it tries to cover issues that are of special interest to the West -- environmental, developmental, political, etc. But in classic entrepreneurial fashion, New West also makes money by hosting conferences on these issues and by a small indoor advertising business on the side.

What struck me in Weber's e-mail response to me is that he sees some encouraging signs in retail merchants' acceptance of Internet advertising. In what may be the ultimate "silver lining" sighting, he also said even the recession may be helping. "This kind of dislocation forces people to revisit how they are spending money, and rethink their marketing strategies overall, and that is actually very good for us," he told me in an e-mail.

I'm still gathering string for this and hope to post on OJR by Thursday.
What will happen in SF? Something big

Hearst announced today that the The San Francisco Chronicle might go up for sale if it doesn't get huge and quick concessions from its unions. It even raised the possibility that it might shut down. In some ways we've been waiting for this for years. I think it was at least two years ago, maybe three, that I heard the Chronicle was losing $1 million a week. Ken Doctor estimates here that owner Hearst may have blown through $250 million in losses since buying the Chronicle in 2000.

The Chronicle has had what feel like intractable problems for a long time. Principally, it has a relatively small geographic and population base that's ringed by competitors. Compounding the problem, it's struggled with very high labor costs and other overhead.

What will happen? Nobody knows -- except that it's likely to be big.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ideas for upcoming speakers?

After this week's class, we'll begin a four-week period in which we talk about the changes under way in the worlds of beat reporting, political satire, ethnic press and international reporting. We have a speaker for our international reporting session. It's Marjorie Miller, former foreign editor for the LA Times and now a member of the Opinion page.

If you have someone from the LA area you'd like to hear from on the other topics, give us a holler.
Sizing up newspapers' watchdog reporting

I posted a blog last week at the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy that got a fair amount of notice -- mainly courtesy of Mr. Romenesko. He gave it the headline: Newspaper investigative reporting can be easily replaced? Don't believe it! I'd just finished judging McClatchy's in-house newspaper contest, and was struck by how deep and wide is the watchdog reporting that continues in newspapers. Which in turn prompted me to write that a very big void would be created if newspapers couldn't do this anymore.

I'm not a newspaper supremacist. I think there's a very decent chance that watchdog reporting will have a new and, quite possibly, richer life on the Web. But I also think new-media experts are underestimating how much watchdog reporting exists now in newspapers. It's not just I-team, five-part investigation stuff. And it's not just happening at the New York Times.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Paying for the news, and letting the public in

I just posted a new blog at the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. Its premise is that the public needs to be brought fully in to the discussion about journalism's future and sustainability.

I know some people are up to speed. But many others are not, and it's in everyone's interest to have this conversation spread as widely as possible. Why? Because Americans need to know that a fundamental institution of civic life faces an uncertain future, and because they might well have some interesting ideas about what to do about it.

I'm pushing back here against what strikes me as an unhealthy response by many new-media thinkers. As a group, they've been scornful of recent ideas for paying for the news, including proposals involving philanthropy and online micro-payments. There are good reasons for their skepticism, but my view is all hands on deck for this discussion. There's already been more idea exchange on this front, in the last 10 days, than I've seen in a long time.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

'Time for grown-ups to intervene'

This week we've seen a couple of strong pushbacks against the ideas, seemingly gathering speed, that newspapers are toast and that what they have produced will be entirely replaceable in the new-media world.

The first came from my former McClatchy boss, Howard Weaver, who took strong issue with the notion that the new-media world has ready-to-go answers for for the jobs that newspaper staffs do now. Here's a taste:

"... The digitalistas who suggest those newsrooms can be readily duplicated or replaced act like willful children, unmindful that substance, craft and capacity matter in the real world, that no group of 10,000 monkeys has ever written Shakespeare, that 98 of the 100 most important pieces of public service journalism last year flowed from professionals in the newsrooms they recklessly disregard.

This is a fool’s game. It’s time for grown-ups to intervene, to end the debate and move beyond the empty calories of nostalgia and the masturbatory fantasies of a theory-based future."
By the way, I disagree with my friend and ex-boss in his disdain for the idea of philanthropy-funded journalism. I do agree it's not the Holy Grail and certainly not going to be any kind of salvation for old-time journalism. But it's a mistake, I think, to take it off the table. Philanthropy already does provide for some great journalism (hello, NPR, hello, ProPublica). It might have a small role but in many, many places.

But back to the main point. A widely admired grown-up, Steve Yelvington, took Howard's bait and reminded everyone today that newspapers are not only not dead; they're still huge money-making machines.

"I really hate being in a position of defending the newspaper industry. It's much more fun, and in the big picture perhaps more productive, to kick it in the pants. But I have to call bullshit on the "Newspapers Are Dead" meme.

No, they're not. Neither is print. Schadenfreude and gravedancing do not advance a rational conversation about how journalism will work going forward, and irrational negativity will not help us invent the future."

I am still relatively new to the culture of new media thinkers, but I believe I understand some of what drives them past realty in declaring newspapers dead. First, many would say newspapers are on the road to death and are traveling down it at a pretty good clip. Second, there's a culture of bold prediction in this group; you can see now there are constant self-references in blogs and tweets to their early, correct predictions of the past. Finally, some portion (I believe) would not be at all unhappy with legacy media's thorough demise, out of a belief that their ways and actions have been so injurious that it's better to start afresh. (And out of a belief that the networked world of the future will come up with a much better brand of journalism.)

My own guess: There's a decent chance that this better future will come, at least in many respects. But I can also imagine that it won't, or will have other faults that will exceed the current ones. I also believe the heart of today's journalism (public-service and watchdog journalism) is anything but malignant. Are there exceptions to this? Yes, but they're rare, and I don't see any near-term replacement for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Anybody got $5 billion to spare?

Last week I wrote in OJR about how some newspaper editors were open to the idea of philanthropic support for their news-gathering operations. A couple of business types at Yale University have gone a couple of steps beyond that. In the New York Times op-ed today, "News You Can Endow," they called on philanthropists to consider buying newspapers and running them as non-profits. I'm betting that this will happen in some locations.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Signs of economic trouble in ethnic press

I missed this when it was published in The New York Times last week, but apparently there are now signs of stress in the ethnic press as well.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Michael Schudson on American democracy and the press

I'm very much looking forward to hearing from our guest Wednesday night. He's Michael Schudson, professor of communication at UC-San Diego, who will help us thinking through the relationship between the press and American democracy, and how that is likely to change with the emergence of the Internet and digital media.

One thing that's worth noting as we read Schudson's chapter on the history of American news media in "The Press:" While we're going through dramatic changes now, we need to remember that the press, and the press' business model, have hardly been a constant thing. I was struck by this sentence in Schudson's chapter, which he co-wrote with Susan Tifft: Printers in colonial America, they said, "pretty much invented the newspaper as they went along, amid their efforts to make money selling stationery, printing wedding announcements, running the post office, or even selling from their print shops such sundries as chocolate, tea, snuff, rum, beaver hats, patent medicines, and music instruments." (Don't forget beaver hats, entrepreneurial journalists!)

Same thought applies to the objective story form. While it achieved Holy Grail status in the last half of the 20th century, it was hardly the form that nourished American democracy for most of its first two centuries of existence. Might that make us feel differently about the prospect of an anything-goes environment on the Internet where advocacy might become the most popular form?

I'm interested in hearing Prof. Schudson talk about the salient characteristics defining the relationship between the press and American democracy. And also his take on how that's likely to change in a world where legacy media declines and a more decentralized digital newsplace rises. What would you like to know from our speaker?

By the way, Prof. Schudson's colleague at UCSD is Daniel C. Hallin, who participated in an interesting discussion with new-media leader Jay Rosen recently on Rosen's blog, "Press Think." Rosen had been using a model developed by Hallin, describing how the press decides what to cover, to question whether it's such a good thing to have the press being the arbiter of what's fair game for debate and what's not. The implication of Rosen's treatise: Digital media will shove aside the arbiters, and isn't that a good thing?

Hallin's response: Not so fast. Here's a key line: "I think journalists often play an important role as an independent source of information, and in many ways I'd like to see them playing a stronger role, not a weaker one, in shaping the public sphere. I'd like to see them play that role in a more independent and thoughtful way than they often do, but I would not like to see them vanish from the political scene--which to some extent is actually happening as media companies cut newsroom budgets."

I wonder if our speaker agrees with this.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Editors are open to philanthropy to support news-gathering

The president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors says there may be a way for newspapers to seek philanthropy in support of news-gathering, without giving way to conflicts of interest or loss of credibility. So said Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel, in a blog I posted today at Online Journalism Review.

And she isn't alone. Robert Rivard of San Antonio and Nancy Barnes of Minneapolis also indicated they could accept foundation support under certain circumstances. Although newspapers have accepted foundation grants before (particularly Pew civic journalism awards), this strikes me as a potential watershed moment. None of these people thinks philanthropy will be the main driver of news revenue, but rather a way to sustain critical reporting. This is going to be worth watching, especially if newspapers and broadcasters go beyond journalism foundations to tap into civic foundations, private giving and membership models.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What if for-profit media relied on philanthropy?

I'm working on a blog for OJR that explores whether newspapers, local broadcasters and other for-profit media might someday begin relying on philanthropy to subsidize their declining reporting resources. This idea might sound a little far-fetched -- why would a contributor give money to an organization that's already turning a profit? But there's an answer to this: It's to pay for coverage that otherwise wouldn't happen.

I started wondering about this last week when the Knight Foundation announced it was giving $5 million to 21 community foundations, who in turn would add their own money (up to $12 million) to support news coverage by nonprofits in their hometowns. This was the first round of a five-year program by Knight, which is journalism's biggest funder, so this idea could really catch on. I wrote about the grant announcement last week in OJR.

What struck me is that many of the funded projects sounded like things that would be right at the heart of a newspaper's mission statement. So what might happen if a newspaper decided it might want to get in on this action? Might foundation money and other kinds of philanthropy be a way to support critical reporting that otherwise might disappear from the newspaper?

My initial reporting suggests that there would be a lot of hurdles to overcome. Foundations face costly and time-consuming red tape when giving to for-profits; and newspapers would have potential ethical issues in accepting money from people and groups that have agendas. But, and this surprised me, I found quite striking receptivity to the idea from both funders and journalists.

Any reaction about this idea? Do you know of any for-profits that are already accepting philanthropy?