How To Fix American Journalism, Part II

Goodbye Newspapers, Hello News

What will American journalism look like in five years? Next year?


Behold two very different models already up and running. One, an inside-the-Beltway, nationally oriented, for-profit operation. The other, a hyper-local, West Coast non-profit funded mainly through philanthropy.

Both are paperless operations, publishing exclusively online. And both were scrutinized at "Enlarging the Space for Watchdog Journalism: Countering Threats, Supporting Innovations," a two-day mashup of journalists, funders and educators that ended Friday at Columbia University.

The Young Turks

Model number one is the indefatigable Talking Points Memo. The young site's founder, Joshua Micah Marshall, won a Polk Award last year for crowd-sourced muckraking that led to the downfall of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Besty West, a TV news veteran and Columbia journalism professor, who moderated a conference panel on media innovation that included Talking Points, called the site "the poster child for a new model of news gathering and news funding."

Andrew Golis, the site's deputy publisher, said low-cost infrastructure has been key to Talking Points' success.

Until about two months ago, Golis said, the entire operation "was based in a small apartment in Chelsea above a flower shop." The site is built "wherever possible" on free software and platforms. "Our costs are very, very small," he said. "We don't pay to distribute a piece of paper."

As for newsgathering and reporting, transparency and reader participation is the Talking Points mantra.

The goal of the site is to "make transparent the direction we're going and what were doing," Golis said, "not just at the end of the investigation, not just at the beginning but throughout." Readers "understand on a very fine-grained level what we're up to" and are encouraged to send in tips and comments.

The entire for-profit operation is funded through "remnant" advertising -pre-bundled blog ads -- and many small donations from readers. The site "aspires to continue growing" and just hired an ad director, Golis said.

Model number two is Voice of San Diego, launched by Andrew Donohue four years ago with funding from a local businessman to fill in what they saw as gaping holes in news coverage.

"Investigative reporting is a public service institution," Donohue said. "The market was just not proving that function any more in San Diego."

Donohue, who won a 2006 Delta Sigma Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists for work published on the site, described the Voice business model as "a hybrid," combining membership donations, contributions from a few large donors and a growing stream of online ads.

"People are willing to support investigative journalism," he said, "especially at a local level."

The site operates on a $1 million annual budget, out of which $9,000 is spent on production, Donohue said. "The rest," he said, "goes to reporters and editors."

The TPN and San Diego projects make the brave new world of low-cost, all-online journalism look easy.

The Dinosaurs

The much more difficult question is what to do about all the existing news-generating capacity in old-school newsrooms across the country.

What about news operations struggling to make the leap from old to new while saddled with massive payrolls and huge operations costs?

And what about the tens of thousands of unemployed journalists with great skills but at a loss about how--or where --to apply them?

Media outlets that have operated on a non-profit model for many years may provide some clues.

There's "a new spotlight on places like WNYC" as examples of successful non-profit media," said Brian Lehrer, who hosts his eponymous daily call-in show on the station. "I don't think it can totally replace what there was, which as pretty mass-scale local investigative reporting."

Lehrer has been experimenting with online reporting and other new media approaches. But last year, he told the conference, an effort to harness the disparate comments of callers into an organized crowd-sourced report met with mixed results.

When Lehrer asked listeners to report on discrepancies in the pricing of food and other goods, the most egregious cases of gouging turned out to be false.

Bob Moser, editor of The Texas Observer, which was founded in 1954, said the magazine became a non-profit 15 years ago.

Moser characterized the publication's business model this way: "Find filthy-rich people who somehow see journalism as a public good and hit them up for long-term commitments."

The Observer has become, under the non-profit model, "somewhat a success story," Moser said. The staff and freelance budget are "a little less small." Still, Moser described the magazine as "a 32-page publication with, unfortunately, only two pages of ads."

As Lehrer observed, there is no way the existing non-profit media outlets can fulfill the need for solid investigative journalism nationwide.

Part of the answer may lie in creating non-profit investigative journalism operations linked to educational institutions, an approach addressed on day one of the conference.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, is one of the prime advocates of this model.

Investigative journalists who worked at daily newspapers "knew they worked in the media equivalent of a department store," Houston said. "They just happened to work in the jewelry section."

Now, he said, "people being laid off and bought out still have the fire to get out there and do investigative reporting." The centers provide a means for the reporting to continue.

Houston has already helped create five centers and is working on more, in Wisconsin, Illinois, New England, Colorado, and Puerto Rico.

"We're trying to do this so no one reinvents the wheel," Houston said. "The main challenge is that the people who want to start these centers have no management training in running a nonprofit."

Anything Goes?

The massive shifts underway in the world of journalism have created a new openness to experimentation, Houston said. With newsrooms shutting down and job losses running high, it seems no idea, expressed under the rubric of innovation, can be dismissed outright.

"In Wisconsin we've talked about rent-a-reporter," Houston said, which would some in handy "When a news organization needs to have somebody who can do a rapid investigation in an efficient way."

Mark Katches, deputy managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which was named "Innovator of the Year" in 2008 for its investigative reporting, said: "We're in this mode where we're not ashamed to try anything."

Katches, who edited an investigative project that won the paper a 2008 Pulitzer for local reporting, counseled that news organizations should focus their efforts on smaller, more manageable stories rather than throwing all their resources into a few big takeouts a year.

"If you swing for the fences all the time, you strike out a fair amount of times," he said. "Multi-dimensional approaches to investigative reporting insulate you a little bit when you're facing cuts."

In With the New
Even as big news organizations are cutting back and shutting down, the new media models are manning up.

"We're never going to have a 1,400-person newsroom like the New York Times," said Talking Points' Andrew Golis. "I don't think those big models can exist any more." But, he added, "we have ambitions to grow."

Voice of San Diego's Andrew Donohue said his publication will never be "this broad, general collection of things that the newspaper used to be." What it will do, he said, is grow as an investigative media model.

"Our public radio station [in San Diego] raises $22 million a year," Donohue said. "If they can raise $22 million, we're pretty confident we can raise money and make ..a very robust investigative team."